Plans for the UK Government to consult on proposals for the mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid have been welcomed, although the HFMA has warned of the risk of relying on fortification alone.
In an announcement by Public Health Minister, Seema Kennedy, health departments in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are asking for views on their proposal to add folic acid to flour. The 12-week public consultation will explore what kinds of products should be included as part of ongoing efforts to encourage women who are trying to become pregnant to take a daily supplement of 400mcg of folic acid before they conceive and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy to reduce the risk of neural tube defects, such as spina bifida.
The Government explained that more than 60 countries worldwide now add folic acid to their flour, including Australia, Canada and the US, and in Australia, neural tube defects fell 14 per cent after it introduced the legal requirement to add folic acid to bread flour.
Kennedy commented: “The simple measure of adding folic acid to flour would help spare hundreds of families from such a life-changing event. Women from the poorest areas are less likely to take folic acid supplements and it is right that we do all we can to protect the most vulnerable in society.”
Kate Steele, Chief Executive of spina bifida charity, Shine, added: “Shine is delighted that the consultation on how mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid will be introduced in the UK has now been launched. After more than 25 years of campaigning for this, we look forward to the day that mandatory fortification with folic acid finally becomes a reality. Its introduction will change many lives for the better by reducing the incidence of anencephaly and spina bifida. This relatively simple step will give new babies and children, and their families, the chance of happier, healthier lives.”
The Health Food Manufacturers’ Association (HFMA) said that it welcomes and actively supports the importance the Government is placing on vital preconception folic acid intakes with its latest fortification plans, however, it raised concern at the real risk that relying on fortification alone will confuse advice on essential folic acid supplementation, leaving some women of childbearing age believing that including bread in their diets will be enough to adequately reduce the risk of neural tube defects in pregnancy.
In a statement, the HFMA pointed out that consumption of bread in the UK has declined by 12 per cent in the last five years, even more so amongst the particular at-risk group, and combined with the current low uptake of supplements prior to pregnancy, there is a danger that the modest amount of folic acid provided by fortification will not address the nutritional needs of most women of childbearing age.
“There is no question that the overall folate status of the general population would improve as a result of mandatory fortification. But raising awareness and education on the need to continue to consume 400mcg of folic acid both before and during the first trimester would become even more important,” the HFMA commented.
“We believe there is a real risk of the law of unintended consequences coming into play on this issue, as women of child-bearing age may mistakenly believe that including bread in their diet means they are no longer at risk, whereas the modest additional intake from this source cannot provide the full protection required.”
The HFMA will be responding in due course to the Government’s consultation.