By Maggie Shui
New Zealand will be among more than 70 countries, including Australia, Canada and the United States, to make folic acid fortification mandatory, following yesterday’s announcement from the Government.
Folic acid is proven to prevent birth defects such as spina bifida and other neural tube defects.
Australia made adding folic acid to bread-making flour mandatory in 2009. Since then, there’s been a 74 percent decline in neural tube defects among indigenous communities, and a 55 percent decline in neural tube defects among births with teenage mothers. Neural tube defects are birth defects related to the development of the brain and spinal cord
New Zealand’s current estimated rate of neural tube defects is 10.6 per 10,000 births. This is higher than countries that have mandatory folic acid fortification such as the United States (7.0 per 10,000 births) and Australia (8.7 per 10,000 births).
The Government will work with flour millers and the wider industry to implement mandatory folic acid fortification in non-organic, bread-making wheat flour. There will be a two year transition period to implement this change.
People who are planning to become pregnant are advised to take folic acid supplements one month before they conceive to reduce the risk of birth defects. However, Minister for Food Safety Dr Ayesha Verrall points out that this is not practical for all people as “a little over half of pregnancies in New Zealand are unplanned”.
Dr Kathryn Bradbury, Senior Research Fellow at the National Institute for Health Innovation says "adding folic acid to bread-making flour levels the playing field and allows all women who could become pregnant to increase their intake of folic acid”.
While folate is naturally found in several foods such as whole wheat bread and dark leafy vegetables like spinach, these foods are not necessarily a part of all New Zealanders’ diets.
Professor of Nutrition at Auckland University of Technology Elaine Rush adds that white bread is cheaper than whole grain bread, and keeps for longer.
“We know what New Zealanders should be eating but sadly many do not have enough money or resources to be able to buy these foods,” Rush says.
“This is the problem that we all should be working towards so that New Zealand is a more equitable place to live."