Dr Paul Clayton 2003
The first proven health benefit of folate supplements was a reduction in the incidence of neural tube defects (such as spina bifida) in the newborn. Then came evidence that it could reduce the risk of colorectal cancer, and, by lowering levels of homocysteine in the blood, protect against heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and osteoporosis. The Americans responded by making folate fortification of flour mandatory, and in the last few years have seen significant falls in spina bifida babies, and heart attacks in older men.
The UK Government refuses to follow suit, citing concerns that folate fortification could mask Vitamin B12 deficiency. This potential problem can be rectified by cofortifying with B12 – but this would put a penny on the average loaf, so British mums and their unborn babies remain, for the most part, unprotected. Leading US academics have accused the UK Government of public health malpractice, a charge which is getting harder to refute by the day.
New research shows that, in addition to all the above benefits, folate supplements halve the risk of neuroblastoma, an uncommon but generally fatal form of childhood brain cancer. In Canada, where flour has been fortified with folate since 1997, a well-regarded group at the University of Toronto found that rates of neuroblastoma fell from 1.57 cases per 10,000 live births to 0.62 cases. How much longer must we wait before our caring government will allow us to share these health benefits?
Koren G et al, Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics 74:3, 2003