Game-changer: UK government expected to finally sanction flour fortified with folic acid in effort to reduce serious birth defects

By Gill Hyslop contact

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Flour, Fortification, Birth defects, Uk, Spina bifida, Public health england, Folic acid fortification

Downing Street is expected to introduce a new policy that all flour is to be fortified with folic acid in an effort to reduce the number of babies born in the UK with neural tube defects (NTDs).

In January, a study was published disproving the concern that fortification risked people consuming too much folate,​which could be dangerous.

The study – by Queen Mary University of London and the School of Advanced Study, University London – stated the maximum suggested intake of folate (1mg/day) is based on ‘flawed’ analysis.

The committee on toxicology of chemicals in food, consumer products and the environment is currently analyzing the results and is expected to report soon, after which an announcement is expected by Downing Street.

Backed by health experts

A long-running campaign by health experts has finally convinced ministers that adding folic acid to flour used for breads and baking could significantly reduce the risk of babies developing spina bifida (when the spinal column of the fetus does not close completely during the first month of pregnancy) and other conditions that involve severe disability or death.

Until now, Theresa May and previous administrations have opposed the idea of fortification, partly on the basis of a study by the American Institute of Medicine, which indicated a risk of neurological damage if folic acid levels become too high.

Critics have also touted the ‘mass medication’ of bread without the population’s consent as an invasion of human rights.

Joining the ranks

However, 81 countries, including the US, have introduced the mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid because only approximately one third of women follow advice to supplement their diet.

According to Public Health England, almost 75% of British women between the ages of 16 and 49 years have folic acid levels below the new World Health Organization recommendation for women entering pregnancy.

Women are advised to take a daily supplement of 400g of folic acid until the 12th week of pregnancy.

Since folic fortification of flour was introduced in 1998 in the US, it has been estimated the NTD have reduced by 23%.

The difference between life and death

Britain is believed to have the highest rate of NTDs in Europe.

Approximately two babies a week are born with an NTD – often spina bifida, which means they will have to use a wheelchair – while two fetus’ a day are aborted because an NTD was identified.

Taking folic acid during pregnancy is estimated to reduce the risk of NTD such as anencephaly – a fatal condition in which a major portion of the brain, skull and scalp does not develop in a fetus – by as much as 70%.

“Mandatory fortification will be a game-changer,”​ said Kate Steele of Shine, a charity that helps families affected by NTD.

“It will mean a major positive impact for the health and well-being of babies born in the future. In many cases, it will be the difference between life and death.’

Related topics: Bakery, Healthy foods, Policy

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