By: Talking Nutrition Editors
Undernutrition – and the impact it can have on health and growth and development – is a truly global issue. Efforts to combat the effects of folate deficiency among pregnant women, for example, may often be associated with low- and middle-income countries in the popular consciousness. In reality however, life-threatening birth defects related to poor folate status are a significant issue for even the world’s wealthiest nations – prompting the question, what more can be done to ensure babies are born healthy?
Folate, also known as vitamin B9, is a key micronutrient for people of all ages, responsible for regulating cell metabolism and the production of red blood cells.4 In healthy adults, a balanced diet rich in leafy green vegetables and pulses can usually satisfy the body’s folate requirements, but during pregnancy, demand for this nutrient skyrockets.5 The neural tube, a basic precursor to the central nervous system, is one of the first organs to form in the primary stages of gestation – so early, in fact, that many women will not yet know they are pregnant.6 This process requires a much higher than average folate status, meaning additional folic acid is almost always needed to reduce the risk of potentially life-threatening birth defects.
Affecting roughly one in 1,000 pregnancies in the UK each year,7 conditions like anencephaly (the absence of the brain and top part of the skull) or spina bifida (where spinal tissue herniates outside the body), are commonly life-shortening and can result in a baby being delivered stillborn or dying soon after birth.8,9,10,11 With the recent National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) finding that 90 percent of women of childbearing age have a folate status which puts babies at increased risk of developing neural tube defects,12 there is a clear need to support adequate folic acid intake in prospective and expectant mothers.
In the UK, women are advised to consumer 400 mg of folic acid per day for a month before conception and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy to help support neural tube development.13 This was mainly offered in the form of supplement tablets prescribed following the first pregnancy check-up. With awareness of the importance of folate still relatively low however,14 concerns have been raised around whether a voluntary supplement is the most effective tool for guarding against folate deficiency.
Mandatory universal fortification of staple food products has several advantages. Most crucially, it avoids the issue of inadequate folate status in unplanned pregnancies, which make up roughly half of all pregnancies in the UK.15 Mandating folic acid fortification of staple foods, such as wheat-based flour, enables women to easily incorporate additional folic acid into their daily routines throughout pregnancy, without needing to remember to take a tablet each day. The addition of folic acid to food has helped to reduce neural tube defects in a number of countries worldwide; the US has seen neural tube defects fall by 28% since the policy came into effect in 1998.16 These results have been mirrored in countries such as South Africa and Chile, where similar schemes have been implemented.17 With the benefits clearly evident, the UK is now following suit and recently introduced the mandatory fortification of all non-wholemeal wheat flour with folic acid.
Wheat flour fortification is not new to the UK – millers are already required to reincorporate nutrients, such as iron, thiamine, and niacin, that are commonly lost during the milling process.18 Adding folic acid to this premixed blend of vitamins and minerals is an easy and extremely cost-effective way to protect babies against spinal conditions. Beyond the initial investment, the cost of incorporating folic acid and other minerals is very low.19 UK millers are endorsing the fortification initiative considering its tremendous public health impact.20 As witnessed in several other countries, the total healthcare savings from folic acid fortification are staggering, not taking into account the myriad social benefits of reduced childhood illness and mortality.21 For example, countries that have mandated folic acid fortification of wheat flour have reported very high benefit-to-cost ratios of 12-48:1.22
The evidence shows that expanding flour fortification to include folic acid is a cost-effective public health intervention to prevent birth defects, with a significant prevention of child mortality, disabilities in children and the associated costs of care savings. With other countries in Europe starting to reconsider their own fortification policies, demand for high-quality customized nutrient premixes to transform health outcomes is only set to rise.
From staple food fortification to multiple micronutrient supplements, dsm-firmenich is your end-to-end partner in the fight against nutrient deficiencies. This mission is reflected in our measurable and transparent food systems commitments, designed to deliver Health for People, Health for Planet and Healthy Livelihoods. What’s more, we are always innovating affordable, aspirational and accessible nutritional solutions to empower our customers to ensure every baby gets the positive start in life they deserve.
Ready to discover how dsm-firmenich’s fortification offering can help you shape brighter futures for children worldwide? Download our dedicated wheat flour fortification brochure here:
03 November 2021
5 min read