The UK government has launched a consultation on its proposal to make the fortification of flour with folic acid mandatory.

The 12-week consultation – which was launched today (13 June) by public health minister Seema Kennedy – will explore what kinds of products should be included.

It outlines three options. They are:

  • Do nothing;
  • Mandate the fortification with folic acid of UK-milled non-wholemeal wheat flour used for breadmaking;
  • Mandate the fortification with folic acid of all UK-milled non-wholemeal wheat flour.

The latter two options include a range of further parameters, such as the level of fortification, the handling of imports/exports and the handling of products containing flour. The legal definition of which specific flours are included or excluded would also need to be confirmed.

Adding folic acid to flour would help raise folate levels in women who could become pregnant, thus reducing the number of babies born with birth defects of the brain, spine or spinal cord, known as ‘neural tube defects’. This is particularly important, according to the government, as roughly half of all pregnancies in the UK are unplanned and it could help prevent up to 200 birth defects a year.

The consultation has been welcomed by Federation of Bakers (FoB), which represents the UK’s largest baking companies.

“The Federation of Bakers welcomes the consultation and looks forward to responding in due course. The decision to fortify or not has to be based on science and is ultimately a medical decision,” FoB director Gordon Polson told British Baker.

Scottish Bakers is also set to respond to the consultation but said it would be consulting with its members and trade suppliers prior to doing so.

“At Scottish Bakers we respect the scientific evidence suggesting a positive impact on health and feel that it is right for government to make decisions relating to the health and wellbeing of the population,” chief executive Alasdair Smith said.

He added that clarification was required on a number of issues such as whether the rules would apply only to products made in the UK or also to imported products sold in the UK.

“The potential impact on bakery exports is also of some concern (shortbread for example is a major Scottish export), especially if fortification might create additional barriers to certain markets. Our greatest concern however is the risk of differential legislation across the UK devolved administrations and central government – this would be unworkable for the industry,” he added.

Flour was chosen as the potential vehicle for folic acid as it is already an established vehicle for fortification. Currently, thiamine, niacin, calcium carbonate and iron are added to all wheat flour (except wholemeal flour) at the milling stage of processing flour.

The consultation document noted that flour has the highest consumption rates across any group of the adult population, with an estimated 90% of people consuming products that contain it, such as biscuits, cakes, pastries and bread.

“The simple measure of adding folic acid to flour would help spare hundreds of families from such a life-changing event,” said Kennedy.

“Women from the poorest areas are less likely to take folic acid supplements and it is right that we do all we can to protect the most vulnerable in society.”