The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition is calling for folic acid to be
added to bread and flour
Folic acid should be added to bread and flour to prevent hundreds of babies being born or aborted every year with diseases like spina bifida, health experts have urged.
Although pregnant women have been urged to take folic acid supplements for decades the rates of
neural tube defects - birth defects of the brain, spine or spinal cord – have not fallen.
The Food Standards Agency has recommended that folic acid be added to bread and flour, like in the US, but the government has still not acted on the advice.
In research published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), experts from the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), said voluntary measures were failing.
The researchers, including from the University of Oxford, said: "Neural tube defects represent one of the most prevalent groups of birth defects with serious consequences for newborns and their families.
"Although termination of pregnancy for foetal anomaly has considerably reduced the live birth prevalence of these anomalies, it is certainly not an optimal solution for a birth defect that is highly preventable with a readily available and low-cost measure, as is the case for neural tube defects with folic acid supplementation or food fortification."
A study from experts at Queen Mary University of London last year found that fewer than one in three women in the UK take folic acid supplements before pregnancy.
Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England (PHE), said: "Implementing SACN's advice to add folic acid to flour would reduce the risk of birth defects, such as spina bifida, in pregnancy.
"PHE's analysis shows that 85 per cent of 16 to 49-year-old women have folic acid levels below the new World Health Organisation recommendation for women entering pregnancy.
"This highlights the importance for pregnant women, and those trying or likely to get pregnant, of taking a daily folic acid supplement of 400 micrograms - before and up to the 12th week of pregnancy."
A Department of Health spokeswoman said it was considering the new evidence and would make a decision on folic acid imminently.
Professor Alan Cameron, vice-president of clinical quality for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), said: "The results of this study support our call for mandatory fortification of bread or flour with folic acid in the UK with the appropriate safeguards such as controls on voluntary fortification by the food industry and better guidance on supplement use.
"Food fortification will reach women most at risk due to poor dietary habits or socio-economic status as well as those women who may not have planned their pregnancy."