Dietary help?FSA reveals plan for folic acid in bread

05 April 2006

Slices of bread

Folic acid could be added to bread to cut the number of babies born with spina bifida after a change of heart by the government's food watchdog.

At the Food Standards Agency board meeting tomorrow, agency experts will put forward the proposal as the 'preferred option', to be followed by a consultation. It had rejected a similar move four years ago.

Women expecting to become pregnant are advised to take folic acid to cut the chance of their baby being born with neural tube defects such as spina bifida. But many pregnant women aren't taking the supplement, particularly as half of all UK pregnancies are unplanned.

Folic acid for pregnant women

The amount of folate recommended during early pregnancy is particularly high to ensure the development and closure of the embryo's neural tube. Failure to close the neural tube leads to birth defects. Spina bifida affects between 700 and 900 pregnancies in the UK every year.

Countries that have made folic acid mandatory in flour have seen a 30 to 50 per cent drop in those affected by the problem. However, one concern about adding folic acid to flour would be that it could delay the diagnosis and treatment of vitamin B12 deficiency in older people.

It was largely due to this concern that the FSA Board in 2002 rejected a recommendation to add folic acid to flour.

Need for choice

Which? Chief Policy Adviser Sue Davies said: 'The evidence indicates that there would be clear benefits from fortification of flour with folic acid as it would reduce the number of neural tube defects associated pregnancies.

'However before a decision is made on whether flour should be fortified, it is essential that the FSA addresses the need to ensure that effective monitoring of vitamin B12 deficiency in older people would be put in place (which could be masked by the higher levels of folic acid that they'd be consuming) and how an effective consumer choice could be maintained for those who don't wish to eat fortified products.'

The FSA Board is being asked to launch a consultation on the issue, and seek the public's views, before issuing advice to ministers.

A briefing paper for tomorrow's meeting says the FSA has had initial discussions with the bread and milling industry. The paper suggests that the industry would prefer to add folic acid to all flour except wholemeal at the milling stage. It estimates this would cost companies around GBP 700,000.