The four UK health departments are today launching a 12-week public consultation on proposals to add folic acid to flour and explore what kinds of products should be included.
The aim is to prevent up to 200 birth defects a year caused by a lack of folic acid consumption.
Folic acid (vitamin B9) is essential to the development of a healthy baby during early pregnancy and not having enough of it can lead to babies being born with brain, spine and spinal cord problems known as ‘neural tube defects’.
Currently, women who are trying to become pregnant are advised to take a daily supplement of 400 micrograms of folic acid before they conceive and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
However, around half of all pregnancies in the UK are unplanned and evidence suggests that even for planned pregnancies, many women do not follow health advice to take folic acid supplements before pregnancy.
Experts say that around 1,000 pregnancies are diagnosed with neural tube defects each year in the UK. Of these, more than 40% of cases are fatal, spina bifida accounts for about half, and the majority of babies with spina bifida need ongoing care.
More than 60 countries worldwide add folic acid to their flour, including Canada, the US and Australia, where neural tube defects fell 14% after it introduced the legal requirement to add folic acid to bread flour.
In the UK, wheat flour millers already have to add thiamine, niacin and iron to restore what is lost in the milling process and calcium for health benefits.
Public health minister Seema Kennedy, said: “We all want to give our children the best start in life and a birth defect diagnosis is devastating for parents. The simple measure of adding folic acid to flour would help spare hundreds of families from such a life-changing event.
“Women from the poorest areas are less likely to take folic acid supplements and it is right that we do all we can to protect the most vulnerable in society.”
Kate Steele, chief executive of spina bifida charity Shine, said: “After more than 25 years of campaigning for this, we look forward to the day that mandatory fortification with folic acid finally becomes a reality.
“Its introduction will change many lives for the better by reducing the incidence of anencephaly and spina bifida. This relatively simple step will give new babies and children, and their families, the chance of happier, healthier lives.”
Clare Murphy, director of external affairs at BPAS (British Pregnancy Advisory Service), also welcomed the proposals, saying: “Neural tube defects (NTDs) like spina bifida and anencephaly currently affect around 1,000 pregnancies in the UK each year, the vast majority of which will end with the painful decision to terminate what is often a deeply wanted pregnancy.
“We have one of the highest rates in Europe, so the only question is why the government has not done this sooner.”
The consultation closes on 9 September.