Folic acid added to flour to prevent spinal conditions in babies
Folic acid will be added to non-wholemeal wheat flour across the UK to help prevent life-threatening spinal conditions in babies, the government and devolved administrations have announced.
Adding folic acid will mean foods made with flour, such as bread, will actively help avoid around 200 neural tube defects each year – around 20% of the annual UK total.
Non-wholemeal flour is already an established vehicle for fortification in the UK and the costs of fortification to industry are expected to be minimal. The addition of folic acid to food has been a successful public health policy in a number of countries worldwide such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada, resulting in falls in neural tube defects.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: "Few things are as important as a baby’s health – and folic acid-fortified flour is a quick, simple win to enhance their development. This will give extra peace of mind to parents and families, as well as helping boost the health of adults across the country."
The neural tube forms the early part of the brain and spine within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy – usually before the mother knows she is pregnant. Folic acid is the synthetic/man-made form of folate. Not getting enough folate (Vitamin B9) at this crucial time can lead to neural tube defects and result in spinal conditions such as spina bifida or anencephaly.
Folate helps the body make healthy red blood cells and is naturally occurring in certain foods, such as leafy green vegetables. Folic acid is already voluntarily added by food manufacturers to breakfast cereal, including some gluten-free products, meaning people can usually get all they need from eating a balanced diet, but a higher intake is required in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
The NHS strongly recommends women who could become pregnant or are planning a pregnancy take a 400 micrograms folic acid tablet every day before pregnancy and until they are 12 weeks pregnant. This advice will continue, but with around 50% of pregnancies in the UK unplanned, the government is taking action to increase folic acid intake nationally to help protect more babies, especially where a pregnancy is unplanned and supplements are not taken early enough.