Published: Wed, January 31, 2018
Medical | By Johnnie Horton

Government urged to fortify flour with folic acid to prevent birth defects

Government urged to fortify flour with folic acid to prevent birth defects

Colin Blakemore, co-author and former head of the Medical Research Council, said: "Spina bifida is one of the most common disabling birth defects, but British research has shown that this tragic condition is a vitamin deficiency that can easily be prevented".

According to the American Pregnancy Association, good dietary sources of folic acid include leafy green vegetables, such as spinach; citrus fruits, such as orange juice; beans; and fortified breads, cereals, rice and pasta.

A Government decision not to fortify flour with folic acid which caused the death or birth defects of thousands of babies was based on an "elementary" mathematical error, new research has found.

Study co-author Professor Joan Morris, also from the Wolfson Institute, said: 'From 1998, when the USA introduced mandatory folic acid fortification, to 2017, an estimated 3,000 neural tube defects could have been prevented if the United Kingdom had adopted the same level of fortification as in the US. This study found that dietary intake of folic acid among pregnant women on low- or no-carb diets was less than half that of women who didn't limit carbohydrates.

Birth defects of the brain and spine happen in the first weeks of pregnancy, often before a woman knows she's pregnant. "And then I was actually really bad at taking it". Even if a woman is not planning to become pregnant soon it's best to plan ahead and start taking folic acid today.

The president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, has described the new research as a "game changer".

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"We corrected that analysis", Professor Wald told Sky News., "And as a result of that the case for having an upper limit on folic acid intake is no longer there".

"Failing to fortify flour with folic acid to prevent neural tube defects is like having a polio vaccine and not using it", said lead author Professor Sir Nicholas Wald from the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine at Queen Mary.

The researchers are now calling on the Government to approve fortification of flour with folic acid - which is a B vitamin - based on their findings.

David Wright, chief executive of flour producer G. R. Wright and Sons, says adding folic acid to the current vitamin mix would not be operationally challenging but additional costs for things like packaging "would not be insignificant".

Since almost half of pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, many women may not take the supplements until later in pregnancy, after a neural tube defect might have occurred.

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