November 8, 2019 8:44 am Leave your thoughts
You might have heard in the news that folic acid is likely to be added to flour in the UK, in an attempt to improve health and prevent birth defects. One of our readers got in touch recently and asked if we could find out if this ruling (if passed) would also apply to organic flour. We carried out some investigations, reading up on the subject and asking questions of some of our flour suppliers. Here’s what we found out.
Short answer: the short answer is simple: right now, no-one knows! It seems likely that legislation will be passed requiring folic acid to be added to white flour, but whether this will apply to wholemeal flour – or to organic flour of any kind – we simply don’t know. We also don’t know if organic flour millers will decide to add it even if they’re not specifically obliged to.
It might be worth comparing the situation with that in New Zealand and Australia, which have similar rules to those proposed here. In those countries, you don’t have to add folic acid to organic flour.
Longer answer: read on! This turned out to be a very interesting – and contentious – topic!
Immediate reassurance: if plans to add folic acid go ahead, the flour you buy won’t look or taste any different.
Folic acid – what’s going on?
There have been vague rumblings about adding folic acid to flour in the UK for years – recently, these have become significantly louder. In June 2019 the government (and the devolved administrations) launched an open consultation seeking views on their proposals for the mandatory addition of folic acid to flour. The consultation closed in September.
By law in the UK, iron, calcium, thiamin and niacin (two B vitamins) are added to white flour: these are sometimes called ‘statutory ingredients’. In a sense, they’re added ‘back’ – the process of turning wholewheat flour into white flour removes these. The situation is slightly more complicated for wholewheat flour: you don’t have to add back the calcium for wholewheat flour, and if you can prove that the level of the other vitamins and minerals meets a prescribed minimum, then you don’t need to fortify with those either. If you can’t prove that, then you do need to add them back – and that goes for organic flour too. (Want to know more? Read up on The Bread and Flour Regulations 1998!)
(There are also various rules relating to imported flour, which complicate the matter. We’re going to focus on British flour for now.)
Why does folic acid matter?
Folic acid is a man-made, synthetic version of vitamin B9 (folate). Folate is found naturally in various foods (including wholewheat flour); it helps us make healthy red blood cells. A lack of folate in our diet is a bad thing in general (the Scottish government has convincingly argued that deprived communities suffer badly from low folate levels), but it’s in pregnancy that it becomes particularly worrisome.
If pregnant women don’t receive enough folate, their babies are at risk of being born with ‘neural tube’ defects, including spina bifida (abnormal development of the spine) and anencephaly, which affects the brain. To prevent these serious impairments, pregnant women are already advised to take a folic acid supplement in pregnancy. For full effectiveness, however, this needs to be taken a reasonable period before conception – and many pregnancies are not planned to that extent. There’s also a general lack of awareness of the need to take folic acid before and during pregnancy. Britain has a relatively high rate of preventable birth defects linked to low folate levels, with around 1,000 pregnancies affected each year. When Canada introduced mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid in the late 1990s, the rate of neural tube defects halved.
Why do some people object?
Some people are very concerned about the possible addition of folic acid to flour. Andrew Whitley, a leading authority on organic baking, is one of them. According to Whitley, who wrote about the matter in his Bread Matters blog (Folic acid in our flour – food sense or counsel of despair?), the addition of synthetic folic acid in flour is an “attractively simple solution”, but one that would be “a big mistake”. Let’s take a look at some of his – and other people’s – arguments against fortification.
The medication argument
Whitley describes the proposal to fortify flour with folic acid as “untargeted mass medication”. He argues that while the proposal would benefit pregnant women, it is much less relevant for the rest of the population. He is concerned that some people might ingest too much folic acid, if they consume a great deal of white flour, or that others – and potentially those most in need of it – might still not obtain sufficient quantities, if they don’t eat a lot of flour-based products anyway.
“When you force a nutrient, in synthetic form and uncertain dosage, on to an entire population, more than half of whom do not need it at all, there are bound to be risks. Most of these arise from differences in the way that synthetic folic acid and natural folate (from things like green leafy vegetables and wholemeal flour and bread) are metabolised by the human body.”
There are some known dangers associated with taking in too much folic acid. These range from nausea, cramps and diarrhoea, up to seizures and a possible link to some cancers. There are concerns that high doses of folic acid might cover up the symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency, which can be a particular concern in older people.
In the UK, the independent advisory body, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, is satisfied that these dangers will be avoided, by ensuring that a safe upper limit of folate level is set.
The ‘could do better’ argument
Medical factors aren’t the only concerns. Those opposed to this proposal make the point that the low-folate situation could be improved in other ways. They note that nature provides us with perfectly good sources of folic acid, if we maintain a healthy diet. Good dietary sources of folic acid include:
- green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and broccoli
- yeast and beef extracts (marmite, for those who like it!)
- oranges and orange juice
- wheat bran and other whole grain foods
- poultry, pork, shellfish and liver.
The Real Bread Campaign is fighting the same corner as Andrew Whitley. They’ve described fortification as simply a ‘sticking plaster’ approach, which fails to address the underlying reasons of poor diet. Instead of artificial fortification, they’re calling for new approaches to the growing of cereals, and to methods of milling and processing, in order to increase and retain micronutrient levels. They also point out that investment in public awareness campaigns and support for healthy eating schemes is needed.
Whitley expresses this argument well:
“the answer to making more natural folate (and many other important vitamins and minerals) available to everyone in appropriate amounts is simple: grow better wheat, leave more goodness in it when it is milled to flour and take time to ferment the bread well.”
“mandatory food fortification is an admission of defeat. It implies that there is no way to get women of child-bearing age to consume enough folate other than by sneaking it synthetically into all the flour they eat.”
The personal liberty argument
Finally, there are arguments that address the question of personal liberty.
Whitley, for example, claims that people are increasingly choosing to eat food that’s additive-free, and that compulsory fortification will make this harder. It will also, he says, remove the element of personal responsibility, with the government making our food choices for us, rather than trusting us to act sensibly ourselves.
Conclusion: watch this space!
So far we’ve concentrated on the sober voices arguing rationally on both sides of the question. There are other voices out there and some of their arguments are somewhat, shall we say, ‘robustly’ expressed and – perhaps – weighted a little too heavily towards personal liberty, without much sympathy for those people for whom folic acid deficiency is a real danger.
We’d advise treating the more virulently expressed arguments with caution. But we’d also advise everyone to treat their diet with caution too. We know that our customers appreciate the need for a good, healthy diet, that they are perfectly capable of taking responsibility for their own diet and that on the whole, they prefer not to eat artificial additives. Our customers tend to be those already eating diets rich in wholegrains. At Naturally Good Food we sell a huge range of wholemeal flour, for baking bread and other purposes. It’s highly nutritious and makes delicious products – and should be your choice, every time.
The government is rather busy(!), we understand, at the moment. But when they’ve had a chance to pronounce on the issue, we look forward to updating this information!
Tags: Andrew Whitley, Bread Matters blog, flour, folate, folic acid, fortification, grains, organic flour, pregnancy, Pulses, Real Bread Campaign, spina bifida, Sustain, wheat bran, white flour, whole grains, Wholefoods, wholemeal flour, wholewheat flour, yeast extract
This post was written by Yzanne