Government to Consult on Adding Folic Acid to Flour

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Thursday 25th October 2018

The government have announced they will set up a consultation on adding the B Vitamin Folic acid to flour in order to prevent a number of birth defects that are common in babies, such as spina bifida and anencephaly.

This comes in the wake of a number of health experts calling for folic fortification as it will assist with current advice by women to take folic acid supplements before and during their pregnancies, advice that is sometimes unheeded. Fortification would mean anyone that eats any product that uses flour in the UK will receive a dose of folic acid.

Experts are largely in favour of the move, citing that other countries have fortified with folic acid for years and it has been proven to be a safe process that only provides benefits.

The benefits cited would be the reduction and prevention of a number of birth defects that have been linked to a deficiency in folic acid, known as “neural tube” defects. These affect around a thousand pregnancies each year and include conditions such as anencephaly (where a major part of the brain, scalp and skull is missing) and spina bifida (a defect in the spine where there is a gap in the spinal cord). Both conditions are severe and a few babies will survive, however without major intervention many sufferers will be impaired for life. The UK has a high rate of neural tube birth defects relative to the rest of the world, something that would be helped with fortification.

It would not be the first time fortification would have been implemented in the UK, with fluoridation of water supplies used to help protect teeth from tooth decay, as well as flour being fortified with iron, calcium, and thiamine and niacin (two B vitamins), to restore the vitamins white flour loses when it is milled.

This would assist although not replace current advice for expecting mothers or women trying to get pregnant. Current advice is that they should take 400 micrograms of folic acid a day, or an “over the counter” dose, although if there is a history of spina bifida in the family, a 5 milligram dose per day may be required. This should be taken from a month before conception to the twelfth week, as this is where the main risk period for neural tube defects are. However, most pregnancies are unplanned, and some women are not aware they should be taking folic acid or otherwise forget to take it.

It would not change the taste or look of flour, however there are a few reported concerns that have been seen in the past. Research in the past suggested that folic acid taken at high enough doses could cause cramps, sleep disorders, nausea, seizures and diarrhoea, although SACN, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, has found the concerns raised are not supported by the evidence. These factors will be a part of the government’s consultation, and will conclude in spring of 2019.