Published in The Sydney Morning Herald on July 1, 2016
The health benefits of bread are proving greater than ever for Australians.
That is the finding of a new study into the impact of the mandatory introduction of folic acid and iodine as ingredients in bread production.
The report shows that neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, where the spinal chord does not fuse properly during foetal development, have declined 14.4 per cent since the government introduced the initiative in 2009.
“Most people eat bread, so putting folic acid in it acts as a safety net for people,” said Ann Hunt, head of the Population Health and Primary Care Unit at the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
“It puts increased folic acid into some of these groups that were harder to reach with educational strategies and telling women to take folic acid supplements.”
In teenagers, defects have declined by 55 per cent, says the report, Monitoring the health impacts of mandatory folic acid and iodine fortification. In Aboriginal and Torres-Strait Islander women, the response has been even greater with a 74 per cent decrease.
Prior to the change, Aboriginal and Torres-Strait Islander women had twice the amount of neural tube defects as non-Indigenous Australians.
Bread is a staple item in most Australian homes, so health benefits are more easily accessible in comparison to costly vitamin supplements.
Prue Watson, manager of the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics at Westmead Children’s Hospital, said the report’s outcomes represented a step forward for birth defect prevention.
“The benefits from the decreased rate of NTDs in Australia demonstrated in some of our most vulnerable population groups is a very good outcome,” she said.
Ms Hunt says that even if women do increase their intake of folic acid to prevent developing birth defects during pregnancy, it can often be ineffective.
“Pregnant women really need to take folic acid supplements a month before conception and then three months after in order to have the added benefits,” she said. “But nearly half the pregnancies are unplanned, so quite often women find out they’re pregnant when it’s too late.”
Iodine is vital to the thyroid, which controls metabolism and is essential for foetal and infant development.
According to Ms Hunt, the level of iodine deficiency in Australia was impacting the country’s overall IQ, resulting in a ‘less intelligent’ nation.
By putting iodine in bread, Australia no longer had a deficiency problem.
Ms Hunt said the health of future generations relies on the continued support of the Australian government for the initiative.
“We think that it would be good if we could have ongoing monitoring to ensure that these early promising results are accurate and sustained over time,” she said.