Health departments in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are asking for people’s views on their proposal to add folic acid to flour.
The 12-week public consultation will explore what kinds of products should be included.
Folic acid, or vitamin B9, is essential to the development of a healthy baby during early pregnancy. Not having enough of it can lead to babies being born with brain, spine and spinal cord problems known as ‘neural tube defects’.
Women who are trying to become pregnant are advised to take a daily supplement of 400 micrograms of folic acid before they conceive and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
However, roughly half of all pregnancies in the UK are unplanned and evidence suggests that even for planned pregnancies, many women do not follow health advice to take folic acid supplements before pregnancy.
Around 1,000 pregnancies are diagnosed with neural tube defects each year in the UK. Of these:
- over 40% of cases are fatal
- spina bifida accounts for about half
- the large majority of babies with spina bifida need ongoing care
More than 60 countries worldwide now add folic acid to their flour, including Australia, Canada and the US.
In Australia, neural tube defects fell 14% after it introduced the legal requirement to add folic acid to bread flour.
In the UK it is common for foods to have vitamins or minerals voluntarily added for nutritional benefit.
UK wheat flour millers already have to add thiamine, niacin and iron to restore what is lost in the milling process and calcium for health benefits.
Public Health Minister, Seema Kennedy, said:
We all want to give our children the best start in life and a birth defect diagnosis is devastating for parents.
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, said:
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.