Folic acid to be added to flour

Date published: 20 September 2021

Health Minister Robin Swann has announced that folic acid will be added to flour to help prevent life-threatening spinal conditions in babies.

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The Northern Ireland Executive in line with the rest of the UK, has agreed that folic acid should be added to non-wholemeal wheat flour. This will mean that foods made with flour, such as bread, will actively help avoid potentially life-threatening spinal conditions in babies every year.

Announcing the public health measure, Health Minister Robin Swann said: “The importance of folic acid at pre-conception and during pregnancy is well-evidenced. In Northern Ireland we have a higher incidence of birth defects due to folic acid deficiency, which disproportionately impacts on those living in areas of higher social deprivation. Today’s announcement has the potential to bring significant public health benefits.

“The fortification of flour with folic acid is already an established measure in 80 countries globally. Including in Australia, New Zealand and Canada where there has been a reduction in neural tube defects as a result.”

Non-wholemeal flour is already an established vehicle for fortification and the costs of fortification to industry are expected to be minimal. Flour is currently fortified with calcium, iron, niacin and thiamin during milling to support health.

Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Michael McBride said: “Fortifying flour with folic acid allows all women who could become pregnant to increase their intake of the important nutrient and reduce their risk of having a pregnancy affected by a Neural Tube Defect. In the first 12 weeks of pregnancy the neural tube forms the early part of the brain and spine. Not getting enough folate (Vitamin B9) in early pregnancy can lead to neural tube defects and result in spinal conditions such as spina bifida or anencephaly.”

It is recommended that women who could become pregnant or are planning a pregnancy take a 400 micrograms folic acid tablet every day before pregnancy and until they are 12 weeks pregnant. This advice will continue, but with around 50% of pregnancies in the UK unplanned, the action to increase folic acid intake across the population will help protect more babies, especially where a pregnancy is unplanned and supplements are not taken early enough

Notes to editors: 

  1. Wholemeal flour and gluten free foods are not subject to mandatory fortification and these products are not in the initial scope of this policy. Wholemeal flour has more naturally occurring folate than non-wholemeal wheat flour, and some wholemeal and gluten free foods are already voluntarily fortified with folic acid in the UK. 
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