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The UK government has announced that folic acid is to be added to UK flour to help prevent spinal birth defects in babies, reports the BBC.

Taking Vitamin B before and during pregnancy can help guard against spina bifida in unborn babies, although many women don't take it despite being advised to.

Adding folic acid to flour has to potential to prevent up to 200 birth defects a year. Only non-wholemeal wheat flour will be affected, with gluten-free foods and wholemeal flour exempt, says the BBC report which was published on its website on September 21, 2021.

Mandatory fortification - which the government ran a public consultation on in 2019 - will see everybody who eats foods, such as bread getting more folic acid in their diets.

Neural tube defects, such as spina bifida (abnormal development of the spine) and anencephaly, a life-limiting condition that affects the brain, affect about 1 000 pregnancies per year in the UK. Many babies diagnosed with spina bifida survive into adulthood but will experience life-long impairment.

'Women are advised to take 400mg of folic acid a day for at least a month before conception and up to the twelfth week of pregnancy. But about half of pregnancies are unplanned and women are not always aware they should take the supplement - or forget to,' says the BBC report.

Folic acid is added to flour in more than 80 countries - and when it was added to bread in Australia, neural tube defects fell by 14 percent. Previous concerns have been raised in that mandatory fortification could have unintended health effects, such as masking a vitamin B12 deficiency or increasing the risk of colon cancer.

The government's independent advisory body - the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition - has been satisfied that these concerns are not supported by the evidence. Since World War Two, the UK's non-wholemeal flour has been fortified with iron, calcium and two other B vitamins - thiamin and niacin.

It's taken years of debating to reach this decision, as the gains need to be carefully weighed against any potential harms. Adding folic acid to flour used in common foods, such as bread, will mean dosing the masses.

Getting enough folic acid around conception and during pregnancy is important for cutting the risk of women having babies with spina bifida or other neural tube defects. Most other people however, already get their required amount of folate – the natural form of the vitamin – from a normal diet.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson says folic acid-fortified flour would be "a quick, simple win" to enhance a baby's development, as well as helping to boost the health of UK adults, adds the BBC report.

Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid says preventing life-threatening health problems like spina bifida would mean fewer people needing hospital treatment.

Kate Steele, chief executive of Shine, a charity providing specialist support for people affected by spina bifida and hydrocephalus and which has campaigned for mandatory fortification of flour for more than 30 years, says she is "delighted" by the decision.

"In its simplest terms, the step will reduce the numbers of families who face the devastating news that their baby has anencephaly and will not survive," she says.

"It will also prevent some babies being affected by spina bifida, which can result in complex physical impairments and poor health. This is truly a momentous day.'

The B vitamin will be listed on the labelling of all foods made with flour.

For more information visit the website, HERE.

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