Crumbs – it looks like the case for doctoring bread with folic acid is being revisited

But why not let us buy a loaf without the folic acid?

Old news about folic acid has been refreshed in a headline in the NZ Herald today.

The headline advises us: Folic acid in bread ‘reduces’ birth risks

But we have known that for a long time.

Alf recalls Annette King launching Folate Awareness Day more than 10 years ago.

She said it was encouraging that the number of babies born in New Zealand with spina bifida continued to decrease.

The number of children born with spina bifida halved in the period between 1988 and 1999. Of all the live births last year, 17 babies were born with this condition, and about 10 still births a year are attributed to spina bifida. While this is still too many, it is an improvement on previous years.

Then she brought folic acid into the picture.

As many of you will know, adequate intakes of folate for four weeks prior to and for 12 weeks after conception are known to reduce the number of babies born with neural tube defects by two-thirds. By increasing their folate intake around the time of conception, many women will be able to avoid much of the suffering and anguish that comes with neural tube defects, and contribute to major savings in the health sector.

But it seems taxpayers have been paying scientists to keep checking, to be sure to be sure.

The Herald accordingly is reporting today that –

Bakers voluntarily mixing folic acid into some breads has reduced the risk of babies being born with neural tube defects including spina bifida, an Otago University study has found.

This stuff about babies and bread is being dished up by scientists who want to butter us up for a mandatory dosing.

One of the researchers now says going a step further and compelling bakers to add the vitamin would lead to even greater gains.

We are told more than 60 countries require folic acid to be added to foods – usually bread, flour or grains, but also cooking oils in some countries.

And we are reminded that New Zealand was on track to join them in 2009, under a transtasman regime.

But the Government (hurrah) was smart enough to have second thoughts and defer a decision on mandatory additions to bread.

We have to revisit the issue this year – in September, it seems.

The Government (Alf gave enthusiastic support on this one) was influenced by a food industry campaign against “mass medication” of the food supply and concerns about links between folic acid fortification and cancer.

The baking industry not unreasonably lobbied for consumer choice and offered voluntary fortification instead.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (formerly Agriculture and Forestry) is working on a discussion document for a round of public consultation before Food Safety Minister Kate Wilkinson makes her decision.

It seems the ministry commissioned Otago University researchers, including Professor Murray Skeaff, to check both the folate levels in a random sample of women of child-bearing age and the amount of folic acid in breads from voluntary fortification.

The study found 59 per cent of women had blood concentrations of folate that were associated with “a very low risk of neural tube defect”. This was more than twice the 26 per cent who were found to have this level in the 2008/2009 national adults nutrition survey.

It also found wide variations in the amounts of folic acid in the bread samples – most commonly too little – which has led to a commitment from the three baking companies involved to improve consistency.

But nothing in this fortifies the case for the compulsory tampering with Alf’s bread.

Professor Skeaff said yesterday voluntary fortification of bread had contributed to the women’s improved folate status, but just how much was unclear because of the concurrent increase in the number of breakfast cereals and other foods that had folic acid added to them.

Well bugger me.

Wasn’t that a waste of public money?

But then we get the old arguments –

“Folate status is improving through voluntary fortification, but there’s no doubt mandatory [fortification] will improve it more. It will likely reach a lot more women because instead of just being approximately 30 per cent of breads, it will be all breads.”

Sure enough, a bunch of busy-bodies called the Paediatric Society are now urging the Government to bring in mandatory fortification of breads immediately in light of the Otago study, claiming it showed folate levels had improved to about “half-way”.

The Organisation for Rare Disorders also wants a mandatory regime, but with exemptions for a small number of products from each baker.

The Herald has talked to the mother of a child who was born with spina bifida, in which the spine fails to form properly before birth.

“She can walk if she’s holding both of your hands,” says Kayla’s mother, Julie Smith, who supports mandatory fortification of bread with folic acid. “She couldn’t stand up on her own.

“She can walk quite well, she runs with her walking frame, but the balance and strength to hold her body up, she’s still working on that.”

The mother says she took multi-vitamin supplements before the child was conceived and during the early pregnancy, so is at a loss to explain why spina bifida occurred.

The report does not mention whether she took folic acid.

Obviously, she had that option as does any other mother-to-be.

And on the strength of the latest study, taking a dose of folic acid is a smart thing to do.

It was no less a smart idea when Annette King championed Folic Acid Day a decade ago.

The advice is there to be taken.

As to a compulsory bread-tampering regime, Alf happens to agree with Whale Oil, who opined on this subject in a comment on the Kiwiblog back in 2009 while the debate was raging.

He huffed (acidly) –

Great so they want to medicate the entire bread eating population for 14 babies. OVERKILL.

Fricken make supplements available from the doctor and DO NOT medicate me with something I don’t want.

Good Christ Almighty, we aborted 80,000 babies last year and now we are being medicated over 14 babies….sheesh our priorities sure are screwed.

Couldn’t have said it better.

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