Folic acid will be added to flour in Britain to help prevent dangerous spinal conditions in babies, following a two-year consultation, the Government has announced.
About 1,000 babies are born each year in the UK with neural tube defects (NTDs), such as spina bifida and anencephaly, but supplementation could prevent around 200 cases annually.
Some 80 countries around the world, including Australia, Canada and the US, have already implemented the mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid, which has brought reductions of between 16 and 58 per cent of annual cases of neural tube defects, with no known adverse effects.
Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, said: “Few things are as important as a baby’s health – and folic acid-fortified flour is a quick, simple win to enhance their development.
“This will give extra peace of mind to parents and families, as well as helping boost the health of adults across the country.”
Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate (Vitamin B9), which functions together with vitamin B12 to form healthy red blood cells and is needed for normal cell division, the construction of the nervous system and the development of the neural tube in a growing foetus.
It is found naturally in green leafy vegetables, such as broccoli, and Brussels sprouts, brown rice, peas, oranges and bananas and it is already added to some foods such as breakfast cereals and yeast extracts.
Since the Second World War, flour has been fortified with calcium, iron, niacin and thiamine during milling to improve the nation’s health. The decision will add folic acid to the mix. Wholemeal flour will not be included as it already has more naturally occurring folate.
Women are advised by the NHS to take folic acid supplements when trying for a baby and until they are 12 weeks pregnant. But around 50 per cent of births are unplanned, meaning many women do not realise they need supplementation until it is too late.
The government believes that supplementing flour is the easiest way to reach these women as 99 per cent of British households buy bread and more than a quarter of all groceries in the four biggest supermarkets contain flour.
Folic acid is 'safe and taste-free'
Sajid Javid, the Health and Social Care Secretary, said: “We are committed to giving more children a healthy start in life. With the safe and taste-free folic acid baked into the national diet, hundreds more babies will be born healthy each year.
“Focusing on preventing life-threatening health issues such as spina bifida, will ensure fewer people will require hospital treatment, and more individuals and families are able to live healthier lives.”
Charities, which have campaigned for fortification for decades, welcomed the announcement, saying it would save lives and prevent many people living with debilitating physical impairments.
Kate Steele, CEO of Shine, which supports people whose lives have been affected by neural tube defects, said: “This is truly a momentous day.
“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.
“It will also prevent some babies being affected by spina bifida, which can result in complex physical impairments and poor health.
“Mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid will improve public health for so many, now and in the future."
The government said that it did not expect the decision would require a major overhaul for flour producers.
Alex Waugh, director of UK Flour Millers said: "Flour millers will do all they can to overcome any practical challenges to make it happen.”