The best thing since sliced bread? Action Research welcomes new folic acid report
3 August 2001
A medical research charity has welcomed a new report that claims adding folic acid to flour can significantly reduce the number of babies being born with disabilities.
Action Research, which is famous for helping develop the UK’s first polio vaccine and ultrasound scanning, says the new American discovery increases pressure for similar moves in the UK.
John Grounds, the charity’s Director of Campaigns and Communications says: ‘Babies deserve to be given the best chance in life, and improving the population’s intake of folic acid is one way of helping to do this. This new report demonstrates that it’s now time to turn our attention to the important benefits of compulsory fortification for mums and their babies-to-be in the UK.’
Action Research has a special interest in folic acid. Thirty years ago work supported by the charity discovered vital clues suggesting that the vitamin was a key ingredient in helping prevent neural tube defects (NTDs) such as spina bifida.
Spina bifida - which currently accounts for 10% of all birth defects - is a congenital defect where the spine doesn’t form properly, leaving a gap or a split, and women in early pregnancy or trying for a baby are advised to reduce the risk by increasing their daily consumption of folic acid. This is usually done through supplements.
It can be too late for some women, however, with unplanned pregnancies. But one way of targeting this population is by adding folic acid to our everyday diets.
The States were quick to realise this, and in 1998 the American authorities ordered folic acid to be added to all products made with enriched flours such as breakfast cereals, bread and pastas. The results have been encouraging, with cases of NTDs falling by 19 per cent, according to new research.
A report published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (Vol 285, p 2981) researchers at the US Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, said the observed decline means about 800 more healthy babies are being born in the US each year.
Leaders at the Center say the reduction is an ‘excellent step forward’ and that fortification - along with efforts for increased awareness - has played an important contribution to promoting the health and wellbeing of future generations.
The Department of Health is currently exploring the benefits for the UK. A Committee report published last year found that fortification of flour could prevent almost half of neural tube defects and the Government launched a subsequent public consultation exercise. A policy decision has yet to be announced.
Last year Action Research launched its awareness campaign, Supplementing the Message in a bid to highlight the importance of folic acid and encourage more women to take it.
A MORI Poll commissioned by the charity showed that nationally, 72 per cent of women aged 15-55 across Great Britain were in favour of compulsory fortification.
This has been broken down to: *75 per cent of respondents in the North *68 per cent in the South and *73 per cent in the Midlands
*Women aged 15-44 were more likely than those aged 45-55 to favour such a move (76 per cent compared with 60 per cent).
Pioneering Action Researcher Professor Richard Smithells, who led the original studies into folic acid and NTDs says he ‘wholeheartedly’ supports fortification, especially as about 50 per cent of pregnancies are unplanned.
Actress Denise Welch who famously played Coronation Street’s Natalie Barnes gave birth to her second son Louis earlier this year after an unexpected pregnancy. The Action Research supporter says fortification is a practical way of giving surprise mums an extra folate boost.
There are also messages of support from a growing number of MPs, and nutrition experts. Jack Winkler, an independent food policy analyst based in London says fortification is a crucial step forward, but says the UK could go even further.
He says: ‘Evidence that folic acid prevents spina bifida is now so strong that regulatory authorities should consider allowing it to be stated on labels so manufacturers can inform their consumers why they have added folic acid and what the health benefits can be.’
Action Research awaits the Government’s results with interest. ‘In the meantime, we must remain vigilant and continue to educate women and their families about the contribution folic acid can make in babies’ developing lives’, Mr Grounds adds.
Action Research is dedicated to helping overcome disease and disability for children and the charity’s Touching Lives Campaign aims to raise £2m for vital medical research. For more details about the charity and folic acid visit www.action.org.uk
For press enquires, please contact Nicole Duckworth in the Action Research press office on 01403 327403 Fax: 01403 210541, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Fact-file: *Spina bifida occurs when the spine does not form properly, leaving a gap or a split. *In severe cases the new-born baby dies. Less severely affected children can be incontinent and paralysed. *Women hoping to become pregnant should take 400micrograms supplement of folic acid every day immediately after stopping contraception and for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. *They are also advised to eat a diet rich in foods which naturally contain folic acid such as leafy green vegetables, as well as foods which have been fortified with folic acid such as breads and breakfast cereals. *UK Committee, COMA (Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy) says universal fortification of flour with folic acid at 240 micrograms per 100g in food products as consumed would reduce the risk of an NTD in unborn babies and children by 41%, without resulting in unacceptably high intakes in any group of the population. *In America, compulsory fortification of flour was introduced in 1998. This was said to provide an additional 100micrograms of folic acid to the average diet.
Jack Winkler is available for further discussion on policy issues on (0207) 2261672
MORI interviewed a representative quota sample of 804 women aged 15-55. Interviews were conducted face-to-face in homes across Great Britain. Interviews were carried out between October 5-9 2000. Data have been weighted to the known profile of the British population. For further information please contact Michele Corrado or Anna Carluccio at MORI on 0207 347 3000.
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