UK introduces mandatory folic acid fortification for wheat flour to help prevent birth defects

UK – UK government has announced that Folic acid (Vitamin B9) is to be added to UK wheat flour to help prevent spinal birth defects in babies.  

Folate helps the body make healthy red blood cells and is naturally occurring in certain foods, such as leafy green vegetables.   

Research shows that not getting enough folate (Vitamin B9) within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy can lead to neural tube defects and result in spinal conditions such as spina bifida or anencephaly. 

Spina bifida (abnormal development of the spine) and anencephaly, a life-limiting condition that affects the brain, are serious health issues in UK affecting about 1,000 pregnancies per year. 

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Many babies diagnosed with spina bifida survive into adulthood, but will experience life-long impairment. 

Women are advised to take 400 micrograms of folic acid a day for at least a month before conception and up to the 12th week of pregnancy to help keep these health conditions at bay. 

But about half of pregnancies are unplanned and women are not always aware they should take the supplement – or forget to. 

To ensure that this group of the population takes enough of the critical vitamin, the UK government has introduced the new regulation which will only apply to non-wholemeal wheat flour, with gluten-free foods and wholemeal flour exempt. 

It is thought that adding folic acid to flour could prevent up to 200 birth defects a year – around 20% of the annual UK total. 

Folic acid is added to flour in more than 80 countries – and when it was added to bread in Australia, neural tube defects fell by 14%. 

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However, there have previously been concerns that mandatory fortification could have unintended health effects, such as masking a vitamin B12 deficiency or increasing the risk of colon cancer. 

But the government’s independent advisory body – the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition – has been satisfied that these concerns are not supported by the evidence. 

Since World War Two, the UK’s non-wholemeal flour has been fortified with iron, calcium and two other B vitamins – thiamin and niacin. 

The product is always a target for fortification as over 99% of British households buy bread and over a quarter of all groceries in the four biggest supermarkets contain flour. 

Its popularity among Briton thus makes adding folic acid to flour-based products a simple way to increase folate levels for tens of millions of people across the UK. 

It has however taken years of debating to reach this decision because the gains of adding folic acid had to be carefully weighed against any potential harms. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said folic acid-fortified flour would be “a quick, simple win” to enhance a baby’s development, as well as helping to boost the health of UK adults. 

Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said preventing life-threatening health problems like spina bifida would mean fewer people needing hospital treatment. 

The government said it did not anticipate the move would require a major overhaul for industrial-scale flour producers – the B vitamin would however need to be listed on the labeling of all foods made with flour. 

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