Folic acid is to be added to UK flour in order to prevent neural tube defects in babies, the government has announced.
All non-wholemeal flours will be fortified with folic acid, also known as vitamin B9, to prevent life-threatening conditions in babies such as spina bifida (a spinal cord defect) and anencephaly (a brain defect).
Studies have shown that taking folate supplements can reduce the risk of defects by up to 70%.
Currently, the NHS advises that women trying for a baby take a 400 micrograms folic acid tablet every day before they become pregnant and until they reach 12 weeks. Mothers-to-be with certain health conditions such as diabetes are advised to take a higher dose.
However, with an estimated 50% of pregnancies in the UK being unplanned, many mothers are unable to take this precaution early enough to significantly reduce the risk of their baby developing a spinal complication.
In the UK, two children every week are born with a neural tube defect which occurs when the spinal cord fails to close properly.
Adding folic acid to commonly consumed flours is one way of addressing this public health issue.
The UK government follows Australia, New Zealand and Canada who have already made fortification of wheat products mandatory.
British charity Shine supports families and individuals affected by spina bifida and hydrocephalus.
It has been campaigning for the government to introduce legislation for the mandatory fortification of commonly consumed flours for the past 30 years.
CEO Kate Steele said: “In its simplest terms, the step will reduce the numbers of families who face the devastating news that their baby has anencephaly, and will not survive. It will also prevent some babies being affected by spina bifida, which can result in complex physical impairments and poor health.
“It’s over 20 years since the first countries adopted this important public health measure, and started to benefit from a significant reduction in the incidence of pregnancies affected by neural tube defects. Now, at long last, people in the UK will share at least some of that advantage.”
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