The UK is moving towards making addition of folic acid to flour or bread mandatory in order to reduce the number of babies born with severe disabilities.
After lengthy public consultations the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has said that it would approach the Government with its recommendations next month after it decides whether folic acid should be added to flour or to bread.
If ministers accept the FSA's proposals, it will be the first time since the end of the Second World War that manufacturers in Britain are ordered to add vitamins to food. In 40 other countries including USA, Chile and Canada folic acid enrichment of flour is insisted on.
Members of the FSA board said there was "strong evidence" that fortifying bread or flour would lead to a major reduction in the 700 to 900 babies born each year with neural tube defects like spina bifida.
Neural tube defects are serious birth defects with symptoms that range from mild to severe impairment. They are caused by incomplete development of the brain, spinal cord and/or their protective coverings. This occurs when the fetus' spine fails to close properly during the early stages of pregnancy.
It is generally recommended that women who are trying to become pregnant, or are already pregnant, should take a 400 microgram supplement of folate, a water-soluble B vitamin until at least the 12th week of pregnancy to cut the risks of neural tube defects in their babies.
Folate is a vitamin found in broccoli, sprouts, peas, chickpeas, brown rice and fruit. Folic acid is its synthetic form.
It is important for the development of the spine in the first stages of pregnancy and women are advised to eat extra folic acid when trying to get pregnant.
However, research suggests that only half of such women adhere to this advice.
Also, up to half of pregnancies are unplanned, meaning women may miss the opportunity.
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