Scottish and Welsh health ministers are urging Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, to ensure all UK suppliers of flour fortify the product with folic acid.
In a joint letter, Aileen Campbell, Minister for Health in Scotland, and Vaughan Gething, Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Services in Wales, explained that the proposed policy change may help to reduce neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, in unborn babies. Figures show that many people in the UK have low folate levels, highlighting the need to add this nutrient into the diet of pregnant women and women of childbearing age.
According to data from Food Standards Scotland, 81% of women of childbearing age in Scotland have folate levels below the standard threshold, leaving them with an ‘increased risk of a neural-tube-defect affected pregnancy’. Low folate levels have also been found to affect 79% of this population type in Wales.
Last year, the Scottish government had considered making the changes to UK-based flour, but now note that the ‘cost and practical implications’ mean that mandatory folic acid fortification should be ‘taken forward on a UK basis’.
The ministers wrote: ‘Both our governments have long called for further action in this area at a UK level.
‘There remains a compelling case for action across the UK to reduce neural tube defects incidence, particularly in the most socio-economically deprived areas.’
Natural sources of folic acid include in dark green, leafy vegetables, oranges, and fortified foods such as breakfast cereals. Nonetheless, three-quarters of women across the UK are still deficient in the important nutrient.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service welcomed the proposed policy change. It said: ‘We strongly support the mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid to reduce the incidence of neural tube defects in the UK, which often result in the termination of a much-wanted pregnancy.
‘There are very few public health interventions which have such a strong evidence base as this one.’
The folic acid policy is already in place in the US and 85 other countries.