Mandatory folic acid fortification begins this weekend

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 11th September 2009

From Sunday 13 September 2009, bread-making flour in Australia must have folic acid, a form of the B vitamin folate, added to it to reduce the risk of babies being born with birth defects such as spina bifida.

Australia has decided to stick with the plan despite New Zealand backing out after concerns were raised about the health ramifications. New Zealand will instead proceed with a targeted voluntary programme.

The regulatory body originally made the move as folic acid is known to prevent neural tube defects in babies. The impact on the population at large has since been questioned, however, after a possible link was discovered between folic acid as a dietary supplement and the incidence of certain cancers. As a result, Ireland, the UK and New Zealand, put on hold their mandatory fortification schemes until further research was carried out.

Bread Shelves

Dr Paul Brent, Chief Scientist for Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), said that the plan would hopefully ensure a reduction to the 300 to 350 pregnancies in Australia that are affected each year by a neural tube defect like spina bifida.

Neural tube defects are among the most serious birth defects. With spina bifida, the spinal column does not close properly and the baby is born with exposed nerves and damaged vertebrae. The effects are permanent. Children with spina bifida can face paralysis, problems with mobility, muscle control, co-ordination and learning.

Mandatory addition of folic acid to the flour used to make bread is expected to reduce the number of these affected pregnancies by up to 14%.

“We have permitted the food industry to voluntarily add folic acid to foods such as bread, fruit juices, yeast extracts and breakfast cereal for more than 10 years,” Dr Brent noted. “There have also been many education campaigns to encourage women to take folic acid supplements. While this has increased women’s intake of folic acid they are still not reaching the required level of 400 micrograms a day.”

“The National Health and Medical Research Council recommends that women who are pregnant, or considering becoming pregnant, should take a folic acid supplement at least one month before and three months after conception to reduce the risk of birth defects. Up to 50 per cent of pregnancies in Australia are unplanned, so while some women may be aware of the need to take supplements, this may not occur at the right time.”

“As it isn’t possible for women to consume enough folic acid from a well balanced diet, we have now made the addition of folic acid compulsory for bread-making flour. The only exception is organic flour which is not required to contain folic acid because of the rules about organic food.”

Dr Brent said the regulatory body had concluded that low levels of folic acid were safe for the entire population.

“FSANZ has spent many years looking at all the folic acid scientific studies available in consultation with our expert groups that included Australian and international health experts,” he stated. “We have concluded that the mandatory addition of low levels of folic acid to bread will greatly reduce the risk of babies being born with spina bifida and that it is safe for the whole Australian community.”

“Mandatory folic acid addition to flour has been used safely in the United States and Canada for over 10 years where rates of spina bifida have significantly decreased. Australian health authorities will be monitoring the effects of the increased levels of folic acid in the food supply.”

The folic acid mandatory fortification standard was developed by FSANZ at the request of the Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council that consists of health and food ministers from the Australian Federal, State and Territory Governments.

More information about the move can be found at: www.foodstandards.gov.au/foodmatters/fortification/index.cfm