In an important step to protect babies from serious birth defects, all non-organic wheat flour for bread-making must now be fortified with the B-vitamin folic acid.
“Folic acid fortification will quite literally save lives in New Zealand,” New Zealand Food Safety deputy-director general Vincent Arbuckle said. “Folic acid is proven to reduce the prevalence of Neural Tube Defects (NTDs), which can be life threatening for babies, or cause life-long disabilities.
“And as Māori and Pasifika babies have higher rates of NTDs, fortifying bread will particularly benefit these communities.”
NTDs are a group of birth defects in which the brain and spinal cord have not developed properly. NTDs can be life-threatening for unborn babies during pregnancy, and people who live with an NTD can have severe disabilities.
Folate is an essential B-vitamin that is needed for healthy growth and development, particularly for the healthy development of babies during early pregnancy. Folic acid is a synthetic version of folate.
“More than 80 countries, including Australia, the United States, and Canada, have safely introduced mandatory folic acid fortification with excellent results,” Arbuckle said.
Manatū Hauroa/The Ministry of Health advises that folic acid tablets should be taken from four weeks prior to conception, and for 12 weeks after, to reduce the risk of NTDs. Fortifying bread with folic acid is an effective way of reducing NTDs, and can benefit people who have an unplanned pregnancy.
“Bakers here have been fortifying bread with folic acid under a voluntary scheme for about 10 years, and currently about 40% of the packaged bread in supermarkets is already fortified. Moving to mandatory fortification will result in greater public health benefits,” Arbuckle said.
“In Australia and other countries, we’ve seen success in reducing NTDs following the introduction of mandatory folic acid fortification of bread-making flour. Australia introduced this in 2009, and NTD rates subsequently fell 14% in the general population, 55% in teenage pregnancies, and 74% in indigenous populations.”
Organic bread, bread or flour made from other grains, and wheat flour not specifically intended for bread-making (such as for biscuits, cakes, pastry, and pizzas) does not need to be fortified, providing a choice for consumers who don’t want to consume folic acid.