An important vitamin could be removed from bread in coming months, increasing the risk of birth defects in developing babies and anaemia symptoms in vulnerable adults.
Flour millers must by law add folic acid (a synthetic form of the vitamin folate) to most bread products sold in Australia, but a looming global shortfall will make it more costly – potentially impossible – for manufacturers to buy in future.
The nation’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Baggoley issued a statement this week warning of future shortages, potentially until early 2017.
“This global shortage of the production of folic acid means there may not be sufficient supplies to add to wheat flour for making bread for up to 12-18 months,” Professor Baggoley said.
Chinese authorities recently shut down approximately half of the country’s folic acid factories to reduce pollution, triggering a global shortfall.
An industry source told The New Daily that bread manufacturers have secured short-term stockpiles, but warned that supplies are “limited and not predictable”.
Most important for women of child-bearing age
A lack of folate during the early months of pregnancy can cause spina bifida (split spine) and anencephaly (underdeveloped brain) in a foetus.
For this reason, folic acid supplements have been recommended to all women who may fall pregnant.
There is also a low risk of anaemia (a deficiency in the number or quality of red blood cells) in either gender, though the vast majority of people obtain enough of the natural form of the vitamin in their diet.
Because folate cannot be stored in the body, levels drop quickly.
An indictment of our diet
The “only reason” artificial folate is added to bread is because Australians consistently fail to eat healthily, a leading nutrition expert said.
“It does show the foolishness of relying on a factory-produced compound, which is available quite naturally in food,” Dr Rosemary Stanton, who helped develop national dietary guidelines, told The New Daily.
To reduce reliance on fortified bread, consumers were reminded to eat these folate-rich foods, which include dark green vegetables; fresh fruit; legumes such as chickpeas; and lentils and peas.
“Those natural folates are actually the ideal form of this vitamin,” Dr Stanton said.
An opportunity to rethink
The addition of factory-made folate to bread is not without controversy.
An academic who undertook doctoral research on the topic said folic acid consumption can mask vitamin B12 deficiency in older adults.
A potential benefit of the global shortage might be that the Australian government switches its focus to the “better targeted” solution of folic acid pills, Deakin University nutrition researcher Dr Mark Lawrence told The New Daily.
“If the worst case scenario is that we can’t maintain the fortification of bread, then in that case the effort needs to go into promoting the supplements.”
Promotion of supplements has been found to be more effective than fortified bread, Dr Lawrence said.
It would seem the important message is increased consumption of vegetables and fresh fruits.