In order to reduce the rates of serious birth defects, all flour sold in the UK will now be fortified with folic acid. The government announcement, reported today by the Guardian, represents a hard-won victory for the many medical organizations and children’s health advocacy groups who have been lobbying for such a policy for decades.
Folic acid or folate, also known as vitamin B9, is an essential human micronutrient involved in DNA and RNA synthesis and the metabolism of amino acids. In pregnant women, a lack of folate can interfere with the formation of the fetus’ neural tube – the tissue structure that develops into the brain and spinal cord, thus leading to several lethal or permanently disabling disorders such as spina bifida and anencephaly.
It has been shown that folate supplementation during pregnancy can reduce the risk of neural tube defects (NTDs) by up to 70 percent, but much of the critical neural tube development phase occurs very early in gestation, meaning that many women may not even know they are pregnant until after the damage is done.
To ensure that expectant women are receiving adequate folate levels from the outset, the US, Mexico, Canada, and dozens of other nations have instituted mandatory flour fortification laws. Large-scale studies show that the incidence of NTDs dropped by 23 percent in the US and by more than 14 percent in Australia after their fortification programs began in 1998 and 2009, respectively.
“I am delighted to hear the news reported in the Guardian that flour will be fortified with folic acid in the UK, to prevent the birth defects spina bifida and anencephaly. If this is officially confirmed, the UK would be taking an important step in preventive medicine, and helping to avoid disability or termination of pregnancy,” Nicholas Wald, a professor of Environmental and Preventative Medicine at Queen Mary University of London, told the Science Media Centre.