Any regular reader of women’s magazines has had it drilled into her head that she should be eating whole grains. Recipes urge us to eat that hummus and cucumber combo on a whole-wheat pita. Toast should be made with whole grains. We’re told to consume that brownish spaghetti that tastes like cardboard because its whole grains will give us fiber, or make us healthy, or something or other. It’s whole grains this and whole grains that, and every time I fix a pimento cheese sandwich on white, I hear Real Simple scolding me. And now it’s Whole Grains Month: 30 days of additional guilt for sometimes preferring white to whole-grain bread.
Well, ladies aged 12 and up, feel guilt no more: you are supposed to be eating at least some white bread. It’s one of the easiest ways to get your daily dosage of folic acid, which health agencies say is a must for all women of child-bearing age. The vitamin is crucial to the development of a baby’s spine during pregnancy—so crucial, that a mother’s deficiency of folic acid before pregnancy can lead to devastating neural tube defects in babies. Resulting conditions like spina bifida and anencephaly (a condition in which the brain is not properly formed or partially missing) are so serious that the FDA mandated folic acid fortification in all enriched grains in 1998.
It happens that 95 percent of all white flour produced in the U.S. is enriched, says Judi Adams, president of both the Grain Foods Foundation and the Wheat Foods Council. That means that almost any white bread available on your grocery shelf will contribute to the 400 micrograms of folic acid women should be getting every day. Adams says it’s not enough to start taking folic acid, or folate, as it is also called, when you’re pregnant—a baby’s spinal cord is formed during the first three weeks of pregnancy, before most women even know they’re expecting. Because half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned, health agencies recommend a good dosage of folic acid for any female of child-bearing age.
The mandate has reduced neural tube birth defects by one third since going into effect. (Canada, which implemented a similar law, has seen a 50 percent reduction.) Adams points out that it’s not just babies who have been saved by the fortification of white flour—an estimated $4.7 billion in direct medical costs has been saved.
Whole grains remain an important source of nutrition, but they have less than half the folic acid that white flour has. Currently, the FDA does not permit the fortification of whole grains, despite petitioning by the American Bakers Association to reverse course. The FDA allows fortification of whole-grain cereals, for some reason, but not bread. Adams says she suspects the FDA is concerned about overfortification, particularly for populations like children and the elderly, who don’t need folic acid the way women of child-bearing age do.
“Whole grains are wonderful, but they’re not the whole story,” says Adams. She recommends servings of both whole grains and enriched grains, plus leafy green vegetables, beans, and legumes, all of which provide folic acid. So eat that white bread with a clear conscience, woman of child-bearing age, because it’s good for you and any future babies’ spinal cords. Plus it just tastes better with certain sandwiches: “Peanut butter and jelly,” says Adams, “and sometimes turkey.”