White flour and bread should be fortified with folic acid to protect babies from devastating medical conditions, a major study concludes today.
It clears the way to add the vitamin to food to ensure babies do not develop illnesses such as spina bifida in the womb.
The research also puts pressure on the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to tackle what are described as ‘avoidable tragedies’.
An average of two women a day have abortions after discovering their developing baby has a neural tube defect.
Supporters of adding folic acid to flour suggest it would save between 165 and 500 lives a year, depending on how much is used
And every week two children are born with the condition, which can lead to a lifetime of pain, paralysis and ill health.
Supporters of adding folic acid to flour suggest it would save between 165 and 500 lives a year, depending on how much is used.
The governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, together with official UK medical and scientific advisers, support the move.
However, progress has been held up by politicians in Westminster, who apparently fear being accused of operating a ‘nanny state’.
Yet white flour is already fortified with synthetic iron, calcium and vitamins as a public health measure.
Most women of child bearing age in Britain are deficient in folic acid, which is vital to the healthy development of a baby
Experts say folic acid should be included in the vitamin mix as is the case in 81 other countries, including the United States.
Sir Nicholas Wald led the latest research at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine at Queen Mary University of London.
The professor said: ‘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.
‘Failing to fortify flour with folic acid to prevent neural tube defects is like having a polio vaccine and not using it.’
Most women of child bearing age in Britain are deficient in folic acid, which is vital to the healthy development of a baby.
Mothers-to-be are told to take folic acid supplements but in most cases this comes too late to help the crucial early stages of the baby’s development.
The governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, together with official UK medical and scientific advisers, support the move
A lack of the vitamin was linked to neural tube defects in British research conducted as far back as 1991. Since then, countries – other than in Europe – have decided it should be added to white flour and therefore white bread, pasta and other foods.
Spina bifida is the best known neural tube defect and occurs when the spine does not develop properly, leaving a gap, generally leading to paralysis and a host of complications.
A second condition called anencephaly occurs when the brain does not form properly and is fatal.
Opponents of fortifying flour have relied on an American study dating back to 1998 which said there was a danger in consuming too much folic acid.
It was suggested over-consumption could mask problems that cause neurological damage.
However, the experts from Queen Mary and the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, have discovered the conclusions of the US study were based on error.
The charity Shine, which supports families where a baby is born with spina bifida, said: ‘We do feel mandatory fortification is necessary. It would mean that these babies are born and they are healthier.’