The UK government has opened a consultation on proposals to add folic acid to flour. The main reason behind the decision is to reduce the number of babies who suffer neural tube defects (NTDs).
An NTD is a birth defect of the brain, spine or spinal cord. This can mean that the spinal cord doesn’t form properly or is damaged. The most common NTDs are spina bifida and anencephaly. It’s estimated that around 1,000 NTD-affected pregnancies are diagnosed in the UK each year.
It’s known that having a folate deficiency increases the risk of NTDs. These occur in the first four weeks of pregnancy, often before a woman realises she is pregnant. Although women who are attempting to conceive are advised to take a folic acid supplement, many don’t. What’s more, the government estimates that around half of all pregnancies in the country are unplanned.
As a result, introducing folic acid, which is a synthetic form of folate, to flour could ensure that fewer women are deficient in the nutrient when they fall pregnant and that fewer babies therefore develop NTDs.
The reason that the government is considering flour, as opposed to another food, is because around 90 per cent of the country’s adult population regularly consume products containing non-wholemeal wheat flour.
Australia, Canada and the USA already fortify their flour with folic acid, as do many other countries around the world.
Speaking to British Baker, Gordon Polson, director of the Federation of Bakers, said that his organisation “welcomes the consultation”. He added that the decision of whether to fortify flour, or not, needs to be “based on science and is ultimately a medical decision”.
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