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Folic acid to be added to UK flour to reduce birth defects ... but no plans in Ireland to do so

According to the HSE, folic acid is important because it can help the nervous system develop in the unborn.

Image: Shutterstock/Ramona Heim

THE DEPARTMENT OF Health has no plans to fortify food with folic acid, despite reports that it will be added to all UK flour to help reduce the number of babies born with birth defects. 

The Guardian reported earlier this week that the policy, which is to be introduced within weeks, comes after ministers were convinced by their advisers that it would reduce the risk of babies developing spina bifida and other conditions that involve death or serious disability. 

It said that Downing Street has approved the change after a long-running campaign by doctors, scientists and baby health campaigners. 

However, the Department of Health said in a statement to TheJournal.ie that similar plans are not in place in Ireland. 

“The Department of Health is aware of UK media reports. There is no DoH policy currently in place in relation to folic acid food fortification,” it said. 

According to the HSE, folic acid is important because it can help the nervous system develop in the unborn. 

A statement on the HSE’s website reads: “Folate is also needed for the body’s cells to divide. It is especially important in unborn babies because it helps the nervous system develop. In the very first weeks of pregnancy, the neural tube closes and fuses. The neural tube later becomes the baby’s brain and spinal cord.”

Folate cannot be stored in the body, and women need 400 micrograms of it per day, according to the HSE.

“Many women do not see folic acid as relevant because they are not planning a pregnancy, but research shows that half of pregnancies are unplanned. Therefore, the HSE urges all women who could become pregnant to take a daily supplement, whether or not they intend to become pregnant,” the HSE statement says. 

Folic acid debates

The topic of folic acid became a talking point during the Joint Committee on the 8th Amendment earlier this year. 

Chair of the committee, Senator Catherine Noone, said last December that the current expectation of women taking folate tablets daily was unrealistic and that adding acid to bread would have no negative outcomes.

She said that during a meeting on 30 November, medical experts expressed the view that there would be no negative effects on the population from such an initiative.

Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell also addressed the committee on 30 November and said that, from her experience as a pharmacist, she’s aware there is “a huge amount of ignorance surrounding folic acid” and the role it plays in helping prevent neural tube defects during pregnancy.

Dr Tony Holohan, Chief Medical Officer of the Department of Health, said he “agrees completely” with O’Connell’s points, and noted that there has been a “concerning” increase in neural tube defects in Ireland.

Dr Peter McKenna, clinical director of the National Women and Infants’ Health Programme (NWIHP), said it’s “unrealistic” to expect women who don’t plan on becoming pregnant to take folic acid every day.

He mentioned that some foods such as wheat could be fortified with folic acid.

Senator Catherine Noone added: “Each year in Ireland, 100 babies are born with a Neural Tube Defect (NTDs).

These conditions have life-changing effects, such as Spina-Bifida. However, 70% of these situations are preventable, if pregnant women receive enough folate during pregnancy. By ensuring that producers add folic acid to flour, even below half of the recommended amount, we can reduce the rate of NTDs in Ireland by 30%.

“By availing of this simple measure, we can make a profound improvement to the lives of hundreds of children in future generations.” 

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