The government has confirmed that folic acid is set to be included in the most commonly bought flours in the UK to aid in the prevention of spinal conditions.
Doctors across the UK recommend pregnant women take folic acid supplements, however, with around 50 percent of pregnancies in the UK being unplanned, a lot of mothers-to-be may not have the chance to take them early enough.
The government has stated that requiring flour millers to increase folic acid content in non-wholemeal wheat flour will help prevent around 200 neural tube defects within babies every year, lowering the annual UK total by approximately 20%.
Prime Minister, Boris Johnson when announcing the move 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.
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“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 which forms the early part of the spine and brain during the first 12 weeks of gestation can become defective if there is not enough folate and can cause spinal conditions including anencephaly and spina bifida. The issue is that this usually occurs before the mother knowns she is pregnant.
Kate Steele, the chief executive of the charity Shine, which helps provide support for those who have suffered and had lives affected from different spinal conditions said: “Mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid will improve public health for so many, now and in the future.
“In its simplest terms, the step will reduce the numbers of families who face the devastating news that their baby has anencephaly and will not survive. It will also prevent some babies being affected by spina bifida, which can result in complex physical impairments and poor health. This is truly a momentous day.”
Folic acid is a human-made version of the vitamin folate, also known as vitamin B9, which aids the body produce healthy red blood cells.
The addition of folic acid to food has already occurred in various other nations across the world and have been a successful public health policy in countries including Canada, New Zealand and Australia, ensuing in falls in neural tube defects.
Non-wholemeal flour is already an accepted vehicle for fortification in the UK and the government have stated that he costs of fortification to industry are projected to be minimal.
Director of UK Flour Millers, Alex Waugh, declared: “Flour, whether white, brown or wholemeal, is an ingredient in many foodstuffs, and supplies a big proportion of our daily fibre and protein along with essential nutrients such as calcium, iron and B vitamins.
“If it is decided that folic acid should be added to flour for public health reasons, flour millers will do all they can to overcome any practical challenges to make it happen.”
Folic acid is already intentionally added by food manufacturers to breakfast cereals, as well as to some gluten-free products, meaning people can usually get what they require from eating a balanced diet, however, a higher intake is a necessity in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, stated: “We are committed to giving more children a healthy start in life. With the safe and taste-free folic acid baked into the national diet, hundreds more babies will be born healthy each year.
The NHS also back the increase intake of folic acid, recommending that women who could become pregnant or are planning to have a child should take a 400 micrograms folic acid tablet daily prior to pregnancy and until they have reached 12 weeks pregnant.
Products such as wholemeal flour and gluten-free food are not subject to mandatory fortification and are not involved in the initial plan for this policy.