How Food Enrichment Made Us Fat, Diabetic, and Chronically Diseased


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OK, thats’s indeed a bold title, but this is a TL;DR post. See, this one was drafted a good while ago. The Duck Dodgers decided to prefigure with a few things that have been posted—like this and this—but then there were more revelations, so what we have is this one, about 900 words and way incomplete, and a 4,000 pound whopper coming up next week. So here’s the “Too Long; Didn’t Read” version for the lazy asses.

Update: Well, it didn’t take long for a commenter to misunderstand what we’re doing here, so let me preface some clarification. This is not an assertion of causality searching for a hypothesis. It’s clearly a set of reasonable, testable associations that give rise to a hypothesis that fortification or enrichment of foods with iron (and perhaps other vitamins and minerals) may have a host of unintended consequences and this should be studied specifically. The follow-on post will contain a lot more justification. For additional clarification I’ve added an additional image below as well.

It’s becoming more commonly known that iron overload can be a prominent feature of obesity and metabolic issues. Obesity and insulin resistance has been linked to an iron-enriched diet. Obese people have iron in the hypothalamus of their brains, their urine, their adipose tissue, and they do not absorb iron well and iron blood levels can be low in some cases. The body may very likely be using adipose intentionally to keep excess iron out of the blood so that pathogens and cancer cannot thrive (i.e. anemia of chronic disease). As those studies point out, adipocytes use hepcidin to regulate the iron status of the blood.

Surprisingly, what virtually all researchers miss is that the countries that fortify their food with iron (or rely heavily on imports of fortified food with iron) are the countries that tend to have the most obesity and metabolic issues—particularly as those countries consume more iron-rich meat.

The island nation of Nauru is a good example of this (high meat intake and reliance on iron-fortified flour from US and UK). This is easy to see in statistical analyses if you’re looking for it. South Africa too—while neighboring countries that do not fortify seem to be immune.

Widespread iron-fortification of flour began in WWII and the level of fortification was significantly raised in 1983. Both events are associated with generally increased obesity. The following chart is from a USDA report:

iron intake2

iron 1909 2000

The report also showed that as of the year 2000, half of this highly elevated iron intake per capita comes from (fortified) grains alone. Meat intakes have risen gradually, but the significant increase in iron intake is mainly due to increases and expansion of iron fortification (to rice, pasta, and grits). In 1943, the FDA mandated 8-12mg of iron per pound of white flour (whole wheat flour isn’t fortified). In 1983, the level was raised to 20mg per pound of white flour. Obesity increased after both policy changes.

Iron fortification has also been shown to adversely disrupt gut flora (and here too).

Iron fortification appears to explain many dietary paradoxes. For instance, the French consume twice as much wheat as Americans do, but they have 1/3 the obesity. The French do not fortify with iron and their diet is rich in iron-inhibitors (dairy, eggs, coffee, tea, phytates). Hence, they do not get iron overload.

Why do US schoolchildren become obese with excessive fruit juice consumption… but German preschool children do not become obese with excessive fruit juice consumption? Well, consider that in the US, schoolchildren eat their lunches with iron-fortified flour—the Vitamin C, fructose, and HFCS all enhancing the absorption of iron, possibly promoting metabolic issues. In Germany they don’t fortify their food with iron, so the fructose, HFCS, and Vitamin C may not have the same effect.

Moreover, iron-fortified food is not balanced with manganese and copper (whereas whole wheat is). We’ve been in contact with Jane Karlsson, PhD, Oxford, who’s studied the interaction of iron and manganese for over 30 years. She informs that there’s good evidence that iron is only toxic when it is not opposed by manganese and copper, which are necessary for proper metabolic signaling in both plants and animals. (That’s why plants have their Fe/Mn in balance).

Carnivores obtain their Mn in large quantities from stomach contents, bile, and fresh intestines…where excess Mn is excreted (i.e. nose-to-tail eating). This might explain why high muscle-meat dining may promote iron overload, but nose-to-tail may not. Dairy can inhibit iron, and this may explain why the Masai also drank a liter of dairy per day.

Tannins seem to bind preferentially to iron, but not copper or zinc. And fiber binds to iron. And curcumin, honey, chocolate, yacon root, and green tea have anti-diabetic and iron chelating properties. Tannins inhibit free-radicals from iron. The Masai always pair their red meat with Acacia Nilotica, rich in manganese, tannins and saponins. The French pair their red meat with red wine, rich in tannins, saponins and phytates (from grape seeds), and they’re fond of manganese-rich chocolate. Both cultures consumed honey.

In other words, the French and Masai practice iron-inhibition. Can this all be just coincidence? While so far overlooked by researchers, could iron fortification be the very key to unlocking all these dietary paradoxes? We think it’s a worthy hypothesis that “requires more study.”

…For instance, the Pima Indians were healthy eating lots of beans, squash and maize; but they became obese and diabetic within 10 years after WWII when forced to subside on iron-fortified flour.

…Northern Ireland is a dietary paradox—Belfast has a coronary artery disease death rate that is more than 4 times higher that of Toulouse, France, despite almost identical coronary ‘risk factors’. Northern Ireland fortifies flour with iron and France does not, never has.

We have many more examples (such as McCarrison’s wheat-eating Indians), but this is intended to wet appetites and pique interest. The main point is that it is impossible to reproduce the French diet in the US, because the US fortifies its flour, rice, grits, and pasta with iron; and it does so in such massive quantity that if you search YouTube, you can see videos of people dragging their cereal through milk with a magnet.

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