The Food Standards Agency's plan for the mandatory addition of folic acid to bread could bring increased health risks for millions of people

It's staggering, and depressing, just how often the Food Standards Agency gets it wrong.

Persuaded by medics who are narrowly obsessed with reducing the incidence of spina bifida - to the exclusion of wider health concerns - it has been pushing for the mass medication of our bread with folic acid.

Now it transpires that the FSA has also been simultaneously asking food manufacturers to reduce the folic acid in their products.

This is because, come the proposed mandatory addition of folate in bread, up to 380,000 people could be consuming excessive, potentially harmful quantities, unless there is a 15% reduction in folic acid in foods such as fortified breakfast cereals and a cap on the amount in vitamin supplements. 

It gets crazier. Fortifying bread with folic acid will almost certainly cause problems for people with leukaemia and arthritis, women being treated for ectopic pregnancies, men with a family history of bowel cancer and people with blocked arteries. 

The older you are, the more alarming it is. Eight thousand people over 65 will face an increased risk of bowel cancer. Excessive folic acid also makes it harder to diagnose certain vitamin deficiencies in the elderly, such as vitamin B12, a lack of which is implicated in dementia and Alzheimer's disease. We are talking millions of potential losers, since most residents of care homes and elderly hospital patients are likely candidates for poor vitamin B status. 

The cost-benefit analysis on this proposed experiment with the nation's health just doesn't stack up.

The rest of the population will have to face increased health risks simply because adding folic acid to everyone's bread may reduce the 200 cases of babies born each year with spina bifida or similar. Talk about a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

And if the FSA gets its way on folic acid, just imagine the resulting mass confusion among the ranks of healthy eaters who have been diligently following government advice to eat lots of unprocessed foods that are naturally rich in folate such as broccoli, brussel sprouts, beans and peas. Who could blame them for wondering if they should still be eating these in quantity, when the FSA has instructed manufacturers to cut folic acid in other foods for fear of a national overdose?

The last word on folic acid rests with the Department of Health. Pray that it can reason better than the FSA.n

Joanna Blythman is the

author of Bad Food Britain