On Thursday 13 June, the Governement announced that they are launching a consultation on plans to fortify flour with folic acid in the UK. 

New plans to fortify flour with folic acid in the UK could prevent up to 200 birth defects a year, public health minister Seema Kennedy announced today.

Folic acid, or vitamin B9, is essential to the development of a healthy baby during early pregnancy and a deficiency can lead to neural tube defects in the foetus. 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 take folic acid supplements before pregnancy.

Around 1,000 pregnancies are diagnosed with neural tube defects each year in the UK. Over 40% of cases are fatal and spina bifida accounts for about half of these cases.

Folic acid fortification has been adopted in more than 60 countries worldwide including Australia, Canada and the US. In Australia, neural tube defects fell 14% following the mandatory fortification of bread with folic acid. 

The Department of Health and Social Care and the Devolved Administrations are now inviting views on the UK-wide proposal as part of a 12-week public consultation, which will explore what kinds of products should be in scope.

It is common for foods to be voluntarily fortified with vitamins or minerals to provide additional nutritional benefits. UK milled wheat flour is already fortified on a mandatory basis with thiamine, niacin and iron – to restore what is lost in the milling process – and calcium for health.

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.”

In May the Nutrition Society signed a joint letter with the British Dietetic Association, the British Nutrition Foundation, and several other health organisations calling for the consultation to go ahead after the initial announcement in October 2018. Read the letter.