The rates of spina bifida and other neural birth defects in Australian babies have significantly declined since the mandatory introduction of folate to bread.
A review of the bread fortification program, conducted by the government-funded Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), has found the overall rate of neural tube defects (NTDs) has decreased by 14.4 per cent since its implementation – in line with predictions.
What wasn’t expected was the even bigger decrease of NTDs among babies born to teenagers, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. The rate of NTDs among teenagers decreased by almost 55 per cent, and by almost
75 per cent among Aboriginal women.
In 2009 the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code required the fortification of bread with folic acid and iodine. Folic acid is a B group vitamin that helps prevent neural tube defects in infants. Iodine is a nutrient needed for the development and functioning of the thyroid gland, brain and nervous system, especially in infants and young children.
Of course, other non-food related factors are contributing to the improved statistics, but research suggests the fortification of bread has also played a key role in preventing the re-emergence of mild iodine deficiency in the general population.
Ann Hunt from AIHW said the results prove the addition of folate to bread should be continued.