The ’robust’ case for fortifying bread with folic acid is distinctly dodgy when one examines the details.
We are told that mandatory fortification has reduced Neural Tube Defect (NTD) births in the US. Yet I believe the evidence does not indicate this at all. The US Centers for Disease Control found that there was actually a 8-16% decline in folate levels in women of child-bearing age after the measure was introduced, suggesting that the cause was, instead, the greater intake of vitamins from the ’five-a-day’ and wholegrain campaigns, which occurred over the same period. Like many vitamins, folate needs to be consumed with other vitamins to be effective.
Folic acid is a synthetic version of vitamin B9, not the natural vitamin. Since the 1950s, research has shown that natural vitamins protect against neuro-degenerative diseases and heart disease. The assumption was that synthetic vitamins would do the same, and the vitamin supplements industry was born. But on August 5 last year, the New Scientist reported on years of studies into Vitamin A and E supplements, which found that there was some controversial evidence they could be harmful. Why, then, should we trust synthetic folic acid?
Although currently produced chemically, methods to produce folic acid through genetic modification are at an advanced stage. The bread industry will need to have exceptionally good reasons for allowing bread, with its wholesome image, to be treated with GM supplements. To mass-produce nutrients from GM bacteria, requires forcibly amplifying a bacterial metabolic pathway and increases all the by-products of that pathway, some of which may be toxic.
There are 700-900 pregnancies affected by NTDs each year, with only 200 or so babies actually born with them. This policy will reduce these rates by only 11-18%. Mass-medicating the whole population for this - 500,000 people for each case saved - is wrong. And this focus on a single nutrient is a refusal to recognise the greater problem - serious food-related disorders affecting millions of people in this country. Obesity, cancer, infertility, heart disease, behavioural problems, and constipation all have a common cause (in part) with NTDs - namely, diets that are too high in refined, processed foods and too low in wholegrains and vegetables.
The Soil Association believes that, for good health, diets should be predominantly composed of minimally processed foods. Crops grown from a living soil, without pesticides, should provide all the vitamins and minerals needed.
Sales of organic food in the UK were £1.6bn last year and are increasing by £7m every week. So we cannot accept policies that support the routine degradation of nutrients by intensive processing and then the replacement of a few of the missing elements by ’fortification’ with synthetic versions.
Thus, the SA opposes mandatory fortification and supports the option of improving diets, through education and the promotion of healthy foods. But we also believe the baking industry should recognise its vital role. Natural folate levels are highly influenced by the wheat variety, the milling of white flour and the Chorleywood process. Rather than being a hostage to fortification, the industry could assess the nutritional value of the wheat varieties it buys, and influence farmers’ choices. It could make slow fermentation more accessible and educate consumers about the health benefits.
The baking industry should take the initiative in this challenge. Surely, little is more important than the quality of the nation’s staple foods.