New research indicates that making the inclusion of the B vitamin mandatory could help reduce birth defects such as spina bifida

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According to a new study, the addition of folic acid to flour  should be mandatory to help reduce the number of babies born with birth defects.

Increased intake of the B vitamin  has been found to be particularly important before and during the first 12 weeks of  pregnancy  to help protect babies from central neural tube defects (NTDs) such as spina bifida. However, according to the NHS, less than 50% of us are getting our recommended intake. Currently, flour is fortified with iron, calcium  and certain vitamins. Experts have commented that fortification of flour could provide extra cover.

The study was conducted by researchers from Queen Mary University of London and the School of Advanced Study, University of London. Lead author, Prof Sir Nicholas Wald, of the Wolfson Institute of Preventative Medicine, said: “Failing to fortify flour with folic acid to prevent neural tube defects is like having a polio vaccine and not using it.”

Although added to flour in more than 80 countries worldwide, the UK has previously held off from doing so due to concerns that too much could have a negative impact. However, the latest research claims that the evidence that supported this is out-of-date and as a result, there is no need for an upper limit.

That being said though, there are some experts that say that further proof is required to show that fortification of flour with folic acid is entirely safe. Prof David Smith, an expert in pharmacology at the University of Oxford, said, “The matter has not been resolved.”

The US is just one of the countries that has introduced the measure and since rolling it out 20 years ago, has seen a 23 per cent fall in pregnancies with NTDs.

Making it mandatory here is already a hot topic among policymakers, with the Welsh and Scottish governments having called for it to become a compulsory ingredient in flour last month. The measure has also been recommended by the government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition as well as the chief medical officers of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.