Public health minister Steve Brine announced that a consultation will be launched in early 2019 to consider the evidence around folic acid fortification as well as the practicality and safety of the proposal.
The government said evidence suggests that expectant mothers can take folic acid during pregnancy to “significantly reduce” the risk of foetal abnormalities such as spina bifida and anencephaly.
Women who are trying to become pregnant are advised to take a daily supplement of 400 micrograms of folic acid before they conceive and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, the UK Department of Health said. However, around half of pregnancies in the UK are unplanned, so many women are missing out on these nutrients early in their pregnancy.
The plans to fortify flour with folic acid are thought to be an effective way of reaching those with the lowest folate intakes – for example, younger women from the most deprived backgrounds.
The consultation will also consider if there are any risks to other members of the general public. These include whether additional folic acid in the diet will mask the diagnosis of conditions such as pernicious anaemia, which is a deficiency in the production of red blood cell.
Public health minister Steve Brine said: “All women should be able to access the nutrients they need for a healthy pregnancy and in turn, reduce the risk of devastating complications.
“We have been listening closely to experts, health charities and medical professionals and we have agreed that now is the right time to explore whether fortification in flour is the right approach for the UK. My priority is to make sure that if introduced, we are certain it is safe and beneficial for all.”
The Federation of Bakers, the trade association representing bakeries in the UK, has welcomed the announcement.
In a statement, it said: “The baking industry has always been responsive to consumer needs and therefore remains committed to responding positively to today’s announcement of a consultation on fortifying with folic acid.”
England’s chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies added: “The evidence shows that fortifying flour with folic acid is a practical way of reducing folate deficiencies in pregnant women and reducing birth defects.
“However, as with any intervention of this kind, we need to be certain it is also safe, and that means considering what the wider implications would be for the rest of the population who eat flour.”