‘The first three months of pregnancy is a vital development stage for a foetus and taking folic acid as a supplement during this time is strongly recommended to help protect babies from neural tube defects,’ said Dr Petra du Plessis, a GP at Queens Road Medical Practice.
‘However as not all pregnancies are detected in the early weeks, particularly those that are unplanned, the addition of folic acid to non-wholemeal wheat flour will help reduce the likelihood of babies developing life-threatening spinal conditions during the early stages of pregnancy.’
The risk of neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, can be offset with an uptake of folic acid in the few first months of pregnancy. The defects are often life-limiting conditions and impact approximately 1,000 UK pregnancies a year.
Women have long been advised to take the B vitamin during pregnancy to guard against neural tube defects in unborn babies, but many do not.
Following the decision, which followed a significant consultation exercise, the UK will join the ranks of more than 80 countries that already add folic acid to flour.
‘Other countries, including Canada and New Zealand, have already fortified flour with folic acid and have seen a reduction in neural tube defects, so it makes sense for us to follow suit,’ said Dr du Plessis.
‘We strongly recommend that women who are planning to become pregnant take folic acid from when they are trying to conceive up until they are 12 weeks pregnant, but this change will certainly help when supplements aren’t taken early enough.’
The UK government estimated that the addition of folic acid to non-wholemeal wheat flour could prevent up to 200 birth defects a year.
When the vitamin was added to bread in Australia, neural tube defects fell by 14%.
Since the Second World War, the UK’s non-wholemeal flour has been fortified with iron, calcium and two other B vitamins – thiamin and niacin.