Under an agreement signed by the previous government, New Zealand bread makers – along with their counterparts in Australia – would have been required to fortify bread products with folic acid from September.
However, the present government has made it clear that the agreement will be deferred for three years, and is expected to formally announce its decision in the coming days.
At a bakery industry summit held yesterday, there was unanimous support for the voluntary fortification of a wider range of breads targeting women of child-bearing age, reported The New Zealand Herald.
Association of Bakers’ president Laurie Powell is also reported to have said that industry will support a marketing campaign to raise awareness of the importance of folic acid for pregnant women.
Balancing the benefits
Folic acid, a B vitamin, is typically associated with neural tube defects (NTDs) in babies. It is thought to reduce the risk of NTDs by up to 70 per cent if taken prior to conception and up to 12 weeks after conception.
However, folic acid and folate may mask vitamin B12 deficiency in the elderly, which can have severe neurological consequences. Excessive consumption has also been linked with some cancers, especially in the elderly.
Indeed, a new study published in the Proceedings on the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that the ability of the human body to convert folic acid to folate may be relatively slow, leading to extended exposure to unconverted folic acid. High folate levels in certain people who harbour pre-cancerous or cancerous tumours may actually promote cancer.
The issue has generated global debate as to whether folic acid fortification of bread products should be mandatory, as it currently is in some countries such as the US, Canada and Chile.
Earlier this month, researchers in Ireland backed a government working group finding that mandatory fortification in the country is unnecessary.
Even though the researchers, led by Mary Rose Sweeney from Dublin City University, determined there was probably no need to fortify the Irish diet, if this did occur, they predicted it would occur at levels of about 12 per cent.