Folic acid is set to be introduced as an ingredient of bread in an attempt to lower rates of neural tube defects.
Boris Johnson has announced that folic acid is set to be added to bread and baked goods across the UK, to help prevent neural tube defects in babies, a group of serious and varying types of spinal conditions that can be fatal. Wholemeal flour and gluten-free food will be exempt from the announcement. There is no announced start date for the ruling yet – watch this space.
What is a neural tube defect?
Johns Hopkins Medicine describes a neural tube defect as ‘a category of neurological disorders related to malformations of the spinal cord’. Quite a few conditions are included in this category, some of which you may have heard of – here are four of the most common;
- Spina Bifida
- Tethered Cord Syndrome
They are referred to as neural tube defects as they originate from the neural tube, the structure in an embryo that eventually becomes a baby’s brain and spinal cord. Early problems with this development are thought to lead to spinal cord defects, which is devastating for families and children impacted by these conditions. The UK Government seeks to reduce numbers by adding folic acid to bread and baked goods as standard, despite pregnant women currently being advised to take folic acid when trying to conceive and for at least the first 12 weeks of their pregnancy by the NHS – read more about this guideline here.
How can folic acid reduce the risk of a neural tube defect?
Folic acid is already strongly advised in the form of a prenatal vitamin – the dose for pregnant women is 400 micrograms for the first 12 weeks of their pregnancy, as this is the most critical time for neural tube formation – but expectant mums who are higher risk may be offered a 5mg dose, once a day. Read more about this here.
This vitamin is known to facilitate healthy and normal neural tube development in your unborn baby. Folic acid is the man-made version of the vitamin folate (also called vitamin B9), and you can also get lots of this through your diet, in order to further reduce the risk of a neural tube defect. Pregnant women need more than the amount typically absorbed by someone who eats a folate-rich diet, which is why it is important to take a supplement.
Foods rich in folate;
- Brussels sprouts
- Leafy green vegetables
- Chickpeas and kidney beans
- Liver – but avoid this in pregnancy as it’s unsafe
- Fortified breakfast cereals
Why does the Government want to add folic acid to bread if mums are already advised to take a supplement?
A big topic of debate surrounding this announcement is; why, if women are already advised to take a folic acid supplement in pregnancy, do they need to add folic acid to bread?
The main point to make is that with half of all pregnancies in the UK being unplanned, many mums miss out on the supplements as they’re also advised to be taken when trying to conceive, so by adding folic acid to food staples, the risk for these mums and babies can be mitigated. Announcing the move, Boris Johnson said:
“Few things are as important as a baby’s health – and folic acid-fortified flour is a quick, simple win to enhance their development. This will give extra peace of mind to parents and families, as well as helping boost the health of adults across the country.”
Kate Steele, CEO of the charity Shine, which supports people whose lives have been affected by neural tube defects such as spina bifida and hydrocephalus, has shared her delight at the announcement!
“Shine is delighted by the government’s decision to support mandatory fortification of the most commonly consumed flours in the UK with folic acid – a move we have campaigned for for over 30 years. Mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid will improve public health for so many, now and in the future. 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. This is truly a momentous day.”
What do you think? We’d love to hear your stories in the comments!
It is very important for us to point out that there is no 100% guarantee, even with religiously taking your vitamins and eating a folate-rich diet, but by following this advice you can certainly lower the risk – we hope that by adding folic acid to baked goods, the rates of neural tube defects will continue to decrease.
British flour has been fortified with vitamins and minerals ever since WW2, so this is nothing new – but it could potentially save lots of heartbreak, and perhaps even save lives.
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