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Better than sliced bread: Curing rickets with baked goods

Collingwood man reveals the ultimate secret family recipe that revolutionized bread in Canada and the U.S. almost 100 years ago

A Collingwood man is preparing to expose a multi-generational family secret in a tell-all book.

The story goes back to the 1920s, and it takes place in a bakery in a country where hundreds of thousands of children were suffering painful and debilitating effects of rickets.

Greg McGroarty, the author of this new book, is a Collingwood resident. He’s writing about his grandfather, William James McGroarty, who spent his career in the bread and bakery business.

In 1929, William McGroarty was the manager of Lawlors Bread (owned by his father-in-law) where he was part of a team of researchers trying to find a way to fortify bread with Vitamin D. 

He was the first person in Canada or the U.S. to obtain a patent for a process of creating Vitamin D-fortified yeast to be used to make Vitamin D-enriched bread, which is still sold today.

The research into Vitamin D enrichment was directly related to preventing rickets in children - an epidemic in Canada and the U.S.

McGroarty's patented formula furthered research in the pediatric health field where doctors and researchers were working on food fortification as a means of preventing illness caused by malnutrition. SickKids Hospital paid licensing fees for McGroarty’s patented formula.

Consequently, sliced bread arrived on the market in 1928, so Vitamin D-enriched bread might have been the first use of the phrase "best thing since sliced bread." 

Lawlors was purchased by Weston Bread and Cakes Ltd. later in 1929, and McGroarty spent the rest of his career working for the Westons. He and Garfield Weston were lifelong friends, growing up in Woodbridge together.

He held his patent until his death in 1949.

But the patent — or rather the name of the person who filed and owned the first patent — remained a secret until now. William’s grandson, Greg, will be publishing his own book on the subject to be sold in Collingwood in September.

“I always knew about the patent, but it was a big secret,” said Greg. “People were worried the research was turned into profiteering … there was the belief it should be put into the public realm at no cost.”

Greg smiled thinking of how his grandmother would react if he told her he was going to write about his grandfather’s patent.

“She would say ‘don’t tell them that!’” he laughed.

The licensing fees made because of the patent helped the McGroarty family through the Depression.

Now, Greg wants people to know more about his grandfather and the others who were responsible for discovering a way to put Vitamin D into bread — a discovery that led directly to Pablum (baby cereal) which provided Vitamin D and other vitamins and minerals to infants, eliminating their risk of rickets.

Greg's book will be about his grandfather and the others who worked to bring Vitamin D-enriched bread and, later, Pablum, to the Canadian public.

Today, rickets is rare, particularly in developed countries, a fact attributed to food fortification like the work William McGroarty did to create Vitamin D-enriched bread.

In the early 1900s, however, rickets was rampant. In England, during the industrial revolution, it was estimated at least 80 per cent of children suffered from some level of rickets.

The disease causes a softening of the bones, leading to permanent deformations and frequent breaks. Though it doesn’t often lead to death, it caused painful malformations in legs, chest and arms.

In some cases, the skull softened and caused brain damage.

Once it was discovered rickets could be prevented and cured (though the damage was not always reversible) with Vitamin D, researchers turned their efforts to fortifying staple foods to ensure kids of any economic status would be receiving enough Vitamin D to prevent rickets.

Harry Steenbock, an American physician discovered irradiation by ultraviolet light increased the Vitamin D content of foods. Vitamin D is naturally occurring in sunlight.

Some researchers tried enriching bread by irradiating wheat, but the Vitamin D content in bread remained low through this procedure.

McGroarty’s patent formula used a compound called ergosterol, which is a steroid alcohol found in fungi that converts to Vitamin D when irradiated with UV light.

He added it to yeast, irradiated it with quartz lamps, and used that yeast to make Vitamin D-enriched bread.

Weston’s worked with a baker’s yeast producer in Montreal called Lallemand to produce the Vitamin D yeast for Weston’s and the other bakers that paid licence fees for the patented product.

Though there wasn’t a Weston’s bakery in Collingwood, the company was the largest producer of wheat for the commercial Canadian baking industry, and some of that wheat came through the Collingwood grain terminals, which still stand today.

Greg said it was likely his grandfather came to Collingwood for Weston’s business regularly.

Greg’s father, James Herbert McGroarty, opened his own bakery in Welland called Sun Rays — named because he was making Vitamin D-enriched baked goods.

Greg said his father and grandfather had a close relationship, working together for most of their careers.

“The baking business controlled their life,” said Greg.

He inherited a grandfather clock presented to his own grandfather in 1929, by the Bread and Cake Bakers Association of Canada in appreciation of his “untiring efforts on behalf of the baking industry.”

Today, many commercially made bread is still enriched with Vitamin D.

Greg’s grandfather died in 1949 with an alcohol addiction.

“He died under not the greatest circumstances,” said Greg. “He was a genius, and he was progressive.”

William McGroarty died before Greg was born, but much of his story and some of his belongings were passed down to Greg.

Not only has Greg set out to tell a part of his grandfather’s story no one outside the Weston and McGroarty families know, but he’s hoping it will help raise money for addiction and mental-health organizations.

He’s donating a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the book in his grandfather’s memory to organizations helping individuals struggling with mental health issues, suicide, and opioid addiction.

“It’s a fact of life today, everyone has mental illness in their family,” said Greg.

He will be releasing his book, called The Bread of Life, at an event at the Historic Gayety Theatre in Collingwood on Sept. 15.

Greg McGroarty has also published two other historical accounts on the history of his wife’s family called The History of Dredging in Collingwood Harbour, and the Plank Roads to Vimy France, 1917. Both books focus on the contributions of the Boone family and C.S. Boone Construction Co. Both are available at Read it Again books in Collingwood.

Erika Engel

About the Author: Erika Engel

Erika regularly covers all things news in Collingwood as a reporter, photographer and community editor. She has 12 years of experience as a local journalist.
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