Folic acid will be added to flour in the UK
It's intended to help prevent birth defects
Folic acid is a small but fairly important part of nutrition. Not consuming enough of it in your diet can lead to serious health issues and it's recommended that it's taken as a supplement during pregnancy to reduce the risk of Neural Tube Defects (NTDs), which can cause babies to be born with conditions such as spina bifida. This is advice that many don't follow, so the British government has decided to step in by mandating that folic acid is added to flour sold in the UK going forward. These new rules will only apply to non-wholemeal wheat flour, so wholemeal flour and any kind of gluten-free flour will be exempt from the new regulations.
It's thought that these new regulations could help prevent up to 200 birth defects a year. They've also been proven to have been effective elsewhere, as when folic acid was added to bread in Australia the number of NTDs in newborn babies fell by 14%. There have been previous concerns that mandatory folic acid fortification could cause unintended negative health effects (including masking a vitamin B12 deficiency or increasing the risk of a person getting colon cancer), but the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (the British government's independent advisory body on these matters) feels that those concerns aren't supported by any evidence.
The decision to add folic acid to British flour has been highly praised by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who claims that it'll be "a quick, simple win" in helping to prevent spinal cord-related birth defects in babies as well as boosting the health of adults in the UK in general. Health and Social Care secretary Sajid Javid has also pointed out that preventing genuinely life-threatening birth defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly would result in fewer people requiring hospital treatment. This might help to take pressure off the NHS, which has been overstretched in recent years and has especially come under stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This view is backed up by Kate Steel, the chief executive of Shine (a charity which provides specialist support for people who suffer from spina bifida and hydrocephalus and has also campaigned for the fortification of flour with folic acid for over 30 years). "In its simplest terms, the step will reduce the numbers of families who face the devastating news that their baby has anencephaly and will not survive," Steel explained. "It will also prevent some babies being affected by spina bifida, which can result in complex physical impairments and poor health. This is truly a momentous day."