Flour could be fortified with folic acid to help reduce birth defects

Public Health Minister Steve Brine said that ministers plan to consult on the move, saying that it will increase folate intake among pregnant women.

The NHS Choices website says that folic acid, or vitamin B9, is important for foetus growth and can significantly reduce the risk of neural tube defects such as anencephaly and spina bifida.

Medics have previously recommended that wheat flour is fortified with folic acid to improve the “folate status” of the population and reduce the risk of these birth defects.

Mr Brine said: “All women should be able to access the nutrients they need for a healthy pregnancy and in turn, reduce the risk of devastating complications.

“We have been listening closely to experts, health charities and medical professionals and we have agreed that now is the right time to explore whether fortification in flour is the right approach for the UK.”

Pregnant women, and those trying to conceive, are urged by health officials to take a daily supplement of 400 micrograms of folic acid, but many women do not take the supplements – especially if a pregnancy is unplanned.

Around 700 to 900 pregnancies are affected by neural tube defects each year in the UK.

If the move goes ahead, Britain will join more than 80 countries which already fortify flour with folic acid.

Professor Louis Levy, head of nutrition science at Public Health England, said: “The vast majority of women between 16-49 have blood folate levels below global thresholds, highlighting a risk of neural tube defect-affected pregnancies.

“Comprehensive evidence shows that mandatory fortification of flour would go a long way towards reducing the number of complications some experience during pregnancy as well as improving the folate status of the general population.”

Dr Alison Wright, vice president for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), said: “There are approximately 1,000 diagnoses of neural tube defects in utero in the UK, such as anencephaly and spina bifida per year, 85% of which currently result in an abortion.

“The evidence is clear that fortification will prevent around half of these neural tube defects.”

Foods that naturally contain folic acid include leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits and beans.

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