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Folic acid: 'Convenience food' data needed in fortification debate

By Nathan Gray+


Improving knowledge on the levels folate in ready-to-eat convenience foods will help European food manufacturers and policy makers to come to better decisions on fortification, suggest researchers.

Whether or not there should be mandatory fortification of folic acid across Europe has been a topic of hot debate for some time, with regulatory agencies across the EU pondering the idea of introducing national guidelines for fortification of foods with the pro-vitamin.

However the case for and against fortifying foods with folic acid cannot be fully answered until industry and policy makers fully understand exactly how much folate is already contained in popular convenience foods, say Spanish researchers.

“Over recent years the consumption of ready-to-eat foods, such as packed vegetables or precooked meals, has become a significant part of the diet,” said the researchers – led by Gregorio Varela-Moreiras from the Universidad CEU San Pablo, Sapain. “In spite of [this] increasing consumption of ready-to-use foods, there is only limited information on food folate and folic acide content.”

Varela-Moreiras and his colleagues argue that in order to accurately assess folate intake levels in Euope, and better inform current debates on fortification, the gaps in current knowledge need to be addressed: “Accordingly, the folate composition of these food categories must be investigated.”

“There is a need at present not only to improve, but also to provide new data on total folate and individual forms of folate in mixed diets which contain ready-to-use commercial products, to supply data for food composition tables or databases and/or to support regulatory purposes,” they argued.

Folate debate

Achieving adequate folate status is known to be important in the prevention of megaloblastic anaemia and the risk reduction of neural tube defects (NTDs).

“Consequently, strategies focused on fortification of food products with folic acid have been implemented or advised in several countries,” noted the Spanish team.

Traditionally, they said, folic acid has been considered a safe vitamin. However research has suggested that excessive intakes could lead to other health issues, including the masking of vitamin B12 deficiency in the elderly “and other still unexpected concerns, including cancer and tumour promotion, epigenetic hypermethylation, interference with antifolate treatment, miscarriages, and multiple births.”

Varela-Moreiras and his team said in order to avoid these possible risks many health promotion campaigns advise increasing the dietary intake of naturally-occurring folate from vegetables, fruits and legumes.

“The availability of a wide range of fresh-cut products and chilled ready-to-eat meals in the food market must be taken into consideration,” they added – suggesting that better quality food composition databases and new analytical tools could help to provide greater insight into the true intake of European’s natural folate intake

Such scientific advances could assist in the development of dietary studies to estimate and evaluate the adequacy of folate intakes of the population, and help to formulate experimental diets for folate bioavailability studies, say the researchers.

“In addition, data may help the health authorities in planning and executing strategies for intervention programs,” they added.

Source: Journal of Food Composition and Analysis
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1016/j.jfca.2012.07.009
“Lack of data on Folate in convenience foods: Should ready-to-eat products be considered relevant for folate intake? The European challenge”
Authors: Violeta Fajardo, Elena Alonso-Aperte, Gregorio Varela-Moreiras

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