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What are folic acid and iodine?

Folic acid is a B group vitamin that helps prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida in infants. Iodine is a nutrient that is needed for the development and functioning of the thyroid gland, brain and nervous system, especially in infants and young children. Neural tube defects and iodine deficiency are significant health concerns in Australia and New Zealand.

Why do we need to fortify the food supply?

The Australian and New Zealand Governments agree that there is a need to increase the amount of folic acid and iodine in our diet. Increasing folic acid in the diet of women who may become pregnant will assist in preventing neural tube defects. Increasing iodine in the food supply will help to prevent iodine deficiency.

Under new food regulations in Australia and New Zealand, all bread (except bread labelled as organic) will be fortified with folic acid and iodine after September 2009. Fortifying bread with folic acid and iodine will increase our daily intake of these nutrients. Bread is a staple food in Australia and New Zealand, eaten by the majority of the population, and is the most logical choice for fortification.

How will we know if the fortification is effective?

A fortification monitoring program will enable the Australian, and New Zealand, Governments to measure the effect of the fortification program on the incidence, and prevalence, of neural tube defects and iodine deficiency.

What will the monitoring program cover?

The main areas the Australian and New Zealand Governments will need to monitor are:

  • Food composition (industry compliance with the Food Standard)
  • Nutrient intake of the population (the amount of iodine and folic acid that we eat)
  • Nutrient status of the population (the level of folic acid and iodine in our bodies-measured in the blood or urine.)
  • Health benefits (has the fortification reduced neural tube defects and iodine deficiency and does it have any other beneficial effects?)
  • Adverse health effects (are there any unwanted health outcomes of increasing folic acid and iodine in the diet? Note: Food Standards Australia New Zealand have assessed the risks of folic acid and iodine fortification and have determined that it is very unlikely that fortification will cause any adverse health effects. However, this aspect must still be monitored.)

What is the AIHW's role?

The AIHW is responsible for:

  • identifying suitable sources of baseline data;
  • identification of data gaps;
  • analysis of baseline data; and
  • making recommendations regarding future monitoring needs.

The AIHW held a workshop on 21 August 2008 involving representatives from Australian government jurisdictions, Commonwealth Government Agencies, New Zealand Government Agencies and experts in the field of folic acid and iodine research. The workshop considered the main priorities of the monitoring program and identified gaps in the baseline data.

The AIHW has collected information on sources of data in Australia and New Zealand that could be used as baseline data. A stocktake report of these data sources will be published in late 2008 and a baseline data analysis report will be published in mid 2009.

The AIHW recommendations include the need for ongoing monitoring to determine the effect of fortification over time.