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Folic acid in flour?

12th December 2006

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is to launch a consultation to see if the public supports a move to add folic acid to flour.

Folic acid is known to cut the risk of birth defects and pregnant women are encouraged to take it in supplement form during the first trimester of their pregnancy. However, the Expert Advisory Group on Nutrition said it supports bringing in mandatory fortification of flour as only half of pregnant women take the recommended supplement. Each year between 500 and 600 babies in the UK are born with neural tube defects, which experts believe could be avoided if folic acid is universally taken during pregnancy.

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) first recommended that folic acid should be added to flour in 2000, but the government asked for more evidence. The committee then studied cases in the US, Canada and Chile where folic acid has been added to flour since 1998 and found that the number of neural tube defects in babies in those countries had fallen by between 25 and 50%.

However, there is concern that adding the supplement to flour could mask a vitamin B12 deficiency in some people. The elderly are particularly at risk with up to 10% of those aged 65 and over having borderline B12 levels which could tip into deficiency. An extreme B12 deficiency can cause irreversible damage to the nervous system. However, when SACN was researching the fortification of flour with folic acid in other countries it found that there had been no rise in the number of elderly people affected by B12 deficiency.

The FSA will make a recommendation to the government in May next year, following the public consultation.

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