Should we start adding folic acid to flour?

Health ministers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have backed the idea of adding folic acid to flour after evidence shows that it could protect babies from common birth defects.

A photo of several loaves of bread wrapped in paper

Pregnancy news, 31/01/2018

Folic acid is a vitamin that helps a baby’s nervous system develop. Taking supplements during pregnancy has been shown to radically reduce the risk of the baby developing spina bifida, or other problems with their spine or neural tube.

For these reasons, women are advised to take folic acid while trying for a baby and for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy (at least). However, many women still aren’t aware that they need to take it or are unclear of its importance.

More than 80 countries have added folic acid to flour but the UK is not one of them. Now, nutritionists and other medical experts are calling for the UK government to rethink after a recent study found that higher doses of the B vitamin would not harm the public.

Professor Tom Sanders, a nutrition expert at King's College London, thinks that the evidence in support of adding folic acid to flour is "overwhelming".

‘If you can dispel the argument for harm... you are left only with the fact that not fortifying flour denies a proven and clear benefit to a significant proportion of the population.’ Professor Sir Colin Blakemore, University of London

Evidence to support adding folic acid to flour

One of the countries to add folic acid to flour is the US. Since the policy was introduced, 23% fewer pregnancies have resulted in babies with neural tube defects.

More about folic acid

In its natural form, folic acid is called folate, which is found in many foods, including oranges, green leafy vegetables and chickpeas. Some foods, such as cereals and margarine, are fortified with folic acid (have folic acid added to them). However, this is optional and it is difficult to get the recommended 400 micrograms a day through diet alone.

This is why the government is being asked to make it compulsory to fortify flour with folic acid.

Find out more about folic acid and pregnancy

Read the behind the headlines article from the NHS

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