Folic Acid-Fortified Foods Could Prevent Hundreds of Birth Defects in the UK

A new study finds that hundreds of birth defects in the UK could be prevented if the government fortified flour with folic acid.

Even while other countries have long implemented fortified food — the U.S. has been fortifying flour with folic acid since 1998, for instance — the UK has resisted creating a mandatory fortification rule. Repeated requests by public health advocates have been met with resistance, as government officials express concern that fortification could drive some people’s intake above the “upper limit” for folic acid intake.

But this latest research shows that this fear is built on a faulty premise.

Researchers at Queen Mary University and the School of Advanced Study at the University of London analyzed the US Institute of Medicine‘s recommendations on the upper limit for folic acid — and that found the analysis to be flawed.

The IOM examined decades-old studies involving people with B12 deficiency who had been treated with folic acid. That research found that neurological damage tended to appear more in patients who had been given high doses of folic acid. The IOM, therefore, concluded that higher doses of folic acid led to a higher risk of neurological damage.

But the University of London researchers didn’t find evidence to support this conclusion.

In fact, they found no relationship between folic acid intake and neurological damage. Indeed, the scientists point out that folic acid had nothing to do with the neurological damage at all. Instead, that was the result of not treating the B12 deficiency with B12 supplements. Based on this finding, the researchers contend that there is no upper safety limit for folate — in the same way that there’s no need for an upper limit on B vitamins, as the human body will excrete any excess.

Lead researcher Professor Nicholas Waldis explained:

With the upper limit removed there is no scientific or medical reason for delaying the introduction of mandatory folic acid fortification in the UK and other countries that have not yet adopted this proven public health intervention.

Currently, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland back mandatory fortification, leaving just England to catch up. The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition has repeatedly called for this change, citing a strong body of evidence highlighting the major health benefits from this approach. 

Why fortify with folic acid?

Folic acid, also known as B9, is often found in foods like dried beans, lentils, whole wheat products, liver and green vegetables, including spinach and broccoli. This vitamin helps the body to make and maintain new cells. Folic acid also appears to play a part in keeping our DNA healthy and free of changes that can be the first step toward developing cancers.

Specifically for expecting mothers, folic acid supplementation is a key way to prevent “neural tube defects” in infants. These kinds of conditions include anencephaly, the absence of a major portion of the brain, and spina bifida, where a baby’s spine and spinal cord develop abnormally. Since folic acid fortification began in the U.S., it’s estimated that 1,300 babies per year have – and will continue to – avoid neural tube defects.

So will the UK change its policy?

At the moment, there’s no indication of a shift in policy.

The BBC reports:

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We want mums-to-be to have healthy pregnancies, and NHS guidance is that women planning a pregnancy should take a daily supplement of 400 micrograms of folic acid before conception and until the 12th week of pregnancy. We also recommend eating more folate-rich foods to reduce the risk of neural tube defects.”

However, this study does put mounting pressure on the government to recognize that a change is needed — and that there is now no compelling reason to dodge fortification.

In the meantime, companies can fortify their flour with folic acid, so concerned consumers will be able to identify those products when they peruse the bread and cereal aisles at their local grocery store. A plant-based diet is likely to provide a strong foundation for receiving many of those vital B vitamins, too.

Photo Credit: Sean Roy/Unsplash

39 comments

Marie W
Marie W2 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Rosslyn O
Rosslyn O7 months ago

Perhaps it is time to have far more tasty affordable alternative meal selections at take-away places and restaurants that cover our nutritional needs. Get rid of the palm/cotton seed oils and fats try going for vegetarian and vegan options being available at these fast food places. Education on healthy living in schools.

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KimJ M
KimJ M7 months ago

Tfs

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KimJ M
KimJ M7 months ago

Tfs

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KimJ M
KimJ M7 months ago

Tfs

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KimJ M
KimJ M7 months ago

Tfs

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Mike R
Mike R8 months ago

Thanks

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Sonia M
Sonia M8 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

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FOTEINI c
FOTEINI chormpou8 months ago

many kids not to say babies are allergic to follic acid. so i don't know why the talks are made.

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David C
David C8 months ago

and many more around the world, we could do more to help those in countries that really need this nutrition...........

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