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Around 1000 babies are born with neural tube defects, such as Spina Bifida, in the UK every year. Adding the supplement to foods such as bread will slash the number of newborns with NTDs by around 20 percent.
The Prime Minister, whose wife Carrie is pregnant with the couple’s second child, 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.”
The costs of fortification to the industry are expected to be minimal.
The addition of folic acid to food has been a successful public health policy in a number of countries worldwide such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada, resulting in falls in neural tube defects.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: “We are committed to giving more children a healthy start in life. With the safe and taste-free folic acid baked into the national diet, hundreds more babies will be born healthy each year.
“Focusing on preventing life-threatening health issues such as spina bifida, will ensure fewer people will require hospital treatment, and more individuals and families are able to live healthier lives.”
The neural tube forms the early part of the brain and spine within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy – usually before the mother knows she is pregnant.
Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate. Not getting enough folate (Vitamin B9) at this crucial time can lead to neural tube defects and result in spinal conditions such as spina bifida or anencephaly.
Folate helps the body make healthy red blood cells and is naturally occurring in certain foods, such as leafy green vegetables.
The step will reduce the numbers of families who face the devastating news that their baby has anencephaly and will not survive
Kate Steele, CEO of Shine
Folic acid is already voluntarily added by food manufacturers to breakfast cereal, including some gluten-free products, meaning people can usually get all they need from eating a balanced diet, but a higher intake is required in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
The NHS strongly recommends women who could become pregnant or are planning a pregnancy take a 400 micrograms folic acid tablet every day before pregnancy and until they are 12 weeks pregnant.
This advice will continue, but with around 50 percent of pregnancies in the UK unplanned, the Government is taking action to increase folic acid intake nationally to help protect more babies, especially where a pregnancy is unplanned and supplements are not taken early enough.
More than 99 percent of British households buy bread and more than a quarter of all groceries in the four biggest supermarkets contain flour.
Since the Second World War, flour has been fortified with calcium, iron, niacin and thiamine during milling to support the nation’s health.
Today’s announcement joins 80 countries, such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada, adding folic acid to staple food products to help reduce neural tube defects.
It is not anticipated to require a major overhaul for industrial-scale flour producers. Folic acid will need to be added to the labelling of all foods made with flour – as is the case with other fortification.
Kate Steele, CEO of Shine, the charity that provides specialist support for people whose lives have been affected by spina bifida and hydrocephalus, said: “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 over thirty 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’’.
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