Archive for April 2016

Folic acid to fortify flour ‘would cut birth defects’

UK experts are backing the call for flour to be fortified with folic acid.

UK experts are backing the call for flour to be fortified with folic acid.

The move which they say would have prevented about 2,000 cases of serious birth defects since 1998.

The failure to fortify flour has caused serious disabilities, including spina bifida, and resulted in terminations and stillbirths, their study said. The US and 77 other countries already have a policy in place.

The Department of Health said it was currently considering the matter. The Scottish government has urged UK ministers to take a quick decision on the issue in order to agree a uniform approach across the UK.

This follows the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition recently saying it was in favour of folic acid being added to flour for bread in the UK.

Folate (the natural form of folic acid) is found in some foods, such as green vegetables, nuts and granary bread.

Folic acid is added to some breakfast cereals, but it is very difficult for pregnant women to get enough from diet alone.

That is why in 1992, the Department of Health in England recommended that women take folic acid supplements before pregnancy to reduce their risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect (NTD) – which involve defects of the brain, spine or spinal cord.

But recent research shows that only 28% of pregnant women take them at the correct time.

However, the government has so far been reluctant to force manufacturers to add folic acid to all bread.

This study, published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, said the current policy was not working and the UK should be following the example of the US in fortifying flour with folic acid.

The US has seen a 23% fall in pregnancies with neural tube defects since the policy was introduced in 1998.

The researchers estimated that a similar policy in the UK would have prevented 1,798 pregnancies with NTD in England and Wales, 152 in Scotland and 64 in Northern Ireland over a 14-year period up to 2012.

This equates to a fall of 21% in pregnancies with neural tube defects over that period.

While most of the NTD pregnancies are terminated, around 75 babies a year are born with serious disabilities.

The research team, led by Prof Joan Morris from the Wolfson Institute of Preventative Medicine at Queen Mary University of London, said putting folic acid in flour was safe and could only be a good thing.

“Europe is the only region not to have a policy of fortifying flour with folic acid, despite evidence that it can cut the risk of neural tube defects by around 70%.” Reaching more women

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Superbug risk from undercooked meat

Superbugs may be passed on to people by eating undercooked meat, a government report has warned.Superbugs may be passed on to people by eating undercooked meat, a government report has warned.


Antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria can lurk in the meat we eat because of excessive use of antibiotics for farming, according to the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance.

If we eat it raw or undercooked, there is a risk – albeit small – that we might catch these hard-to-treat infections and become ill.

Bacteria are constantly evolving and can learn how to dodge the drugs we use.

Over-reliance on antibiotic drugs in any setting can lead to resistance. Regular use of antibiotics in food animals creates the ideal conditions for the emergence of resistant bacteria.

Weak, susceptible bacteria die off, while the antibiotic-resistant bacteria thrive.


Humans can catch these bacteria if they come into close contact with the animals – farmers, for example – or if they eat the infected meat.

While most cases of food poisoning, although unpleasant, do not need treatment, some people may need to take antibiotics. And if the bacteria responsible are already resistant to these drugs then it makes treating the infection difficult. How can I check the meat I eat is safe?

If you eat meat, the safest way to consume it is well cooked – steaming hot all the way through and any juices run clear. This kills any bacteria that might be present.

Health Direct says it is safe to serve steak and other whole cuts of beef and lamb rare (not cooked in the middle) or blue (seared on the outside) as long as they have been properly sealed (cooked quickly at a high temperature on the outside only) to kill any bacteria on the meat’s surface.

The report in the Lancet Infectious Diseases showed resistance in a fifth of animals tested, 15% of raw meat samples and in 16 patients. Can we stop the use?

In the UK, nearly half of all antibiotics used are in farming. We cannot stop all antibiotic use in food animals. The drugs are useful for reducing animal disease and suffering. But experts say there is massive scope for curbing their use.

Denmark remains one of the biggest exporters of pork in the world but has greatly reduced its levels of antibiotic use in livestock.

As well as reducing the quantity of use, more restrictions are needed on the types of antibiotics used in animals, the government report says.

Countries need to come together and agree to restrict or even ban the use in animals of antibiotics that are important for humans, it adds.

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Can we cut sugar levels in our food?

The amount of sugar in some packaged food must be reduced, the health authorities say.

The amount of sugar in some packaged food must be reduced, the health authorities say.

It is an approach that has worked before, with salt – but can the trick be repeated?

Fifty years ago, everyday products, from bread to tinned vegetables, had much higher salt levels. Then, the government got involved and targets were set. A typical loaf of bread now has 40% less salt than it did in the 1980s, with about a 10% reduction in just the past three years.

The gradual changes went largely unnoticed by consumers and led to an adjustment in the nation’s palate.

Now, Public Health England says a similar programme for sugar – in products such as biscuits, cakes, puddings, yoghurts, cereals and drinks – along with reductions in portion size, would have positive health benefits.

A 50% reduction in the amount of sugar from these foods would lower sugar intakes for adults from 12% to 9% of energy and for children and teenagers from about 15% to 10%.

Some food and drink companies have already reduced the sugar content of some products in large steps, maintaining sweetness by adding a no- or low-calorie sweetener.

In fact, one of the expanding areas of food manufacturing is alternatives to sugar – there are many natural and artificial alternatives on the market.

One plant, Stevia, is 200 times as sweet with none of the calories. Unheard of four years ago, it is already used in dozens of big brands such as Heinz ketchup and baked beans, Coca Cola Life and Sprite. Often, it is introduced gradually, and buried away deep in the ingredients list.

Olivier Kutz, from Pure Circle, which produces Stevia products, says some brands or manufacturers will list it clearly on the label. “Others choose not to shout about it for various reasons – it could be because it’s an everyday product and they don’t want to confuse consumers,” he says.

Some consumers are wary about artificial sweeteners – aspartame was removed from Diet Pepsi in the US earlier this year after concerns about potential side-effects. Frighten customers


And there is another problem with removing sugar from recipes – it causes technical problems.

At Nottingham Trent University, food scientists experiment with baking cakes with different levels of sugar and artificial sweeteners – the results, in terms of taste and appearance, are mixed.

Senior food lecturer Christine Walker says: “Sugar has functions within the recipe, as most things do. Of course it provides sweetness and adds to the pleasant flavour, but it also adds texture to it and it also has a caramelising effect so it browns, so it’s aesthetically pleasing. We eat with our eyes, so if it doesn’t look good, we’re not going to eat it. So it has those things and and if you start to take sugar away from it, those things may well be changed.”

The government report suggests that for some confectionery, portion-size reduction may be an easier way of cutting down on sugar levels.

In the meantime, Ms Walker and her team will keep experimenting. “You can take it out. It’s whether customers will buy it, because that’s the bottom line isn’t it? It’s one of those things, trial and error. But the customer says they want less so we try very hard to do that,” she says.

If obesity is – as the government says – the biggest public health threat facing our children, then we might have to accept the food we buy will have to change. And the companies selling us the stuff may have to work harder to come up with recipes that are not just good for our palette but our waistline too.

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