Folic acid should be routinely added to flour used in bread as a way of cutting birth defects, food experts agreed today.
Members of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) board unanimously backed the measure.
Fortifying bread with folic acid is the best way of reducing cases of birth defects such as spina bifida, the board agreed.
New controls on the addition of folic acid to breakfast cereals and low-fat spreads by manufacturers will be essential if the measure is brought in, it said.
Today’s decision follows a long-running debate on the pros and cons of mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid – a synthetic form of the B vitamin folate.
The FSA board rejected the measure five years ago due to lack of available evidence about possible risks and benefits.
A final decision on mandatory fortification of bread with folic acid will rest with government.
FSA chair Dame Deirdre Hutton told the FSA board meeting in Nottingham that she supported the measure.
‘I don’t believe it is the ultimate solution. I believe it is the best pragmatic solution we can get,’ she said.
The FSA board wants further advice on how folic acid can be added to bread via flour without affecting cakes or biscuits.
And it called for more debate on how products fortified with folic acid should be labelled.
Between 700 and 900 pregnancies per year in the UK are affected by neural tube defects (NTDs) such as spina bifida.
The FSA already advises women to eat extra folic acid when trying to get pregnant. But this strategy is not effective because about half of pregnancies are unplanned.
Mandatory fortification already happens in the United States, Canada and Chile, where it has cut NTD rates by between 27 per cent and 50 per cent.
It will be introduced in Ireland next year and is under consideration in Australia and New Zealand.
Gordon Polson, Director of the Federation of Bakers, which represents the makers of Warburtons, Hovis, Kingsmill and other brands, backed the board’s decision.
‘We now will be happy to talk to them about how that can be implemented in a practical way.
‘We have said the practical solution would be (to fortify) all flour at the milling stage rather than flour only intended for bread because that is the practical way of doing it.’