The debate about whether to make it mandatory to add folic acid to bread illustrates the complexities of legislation on functional food.
In 2007, the Food Standards Agency advised it should be mandatory on the basis of advice from its Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, which argued that the move could stop dozens of babies developing spina bifida.

The US and Canada have been fortifying their bread in this way since the late 1990s. But a change of this magnitude in the UK would require legislation to be brought before Parliament as well as ensuring there were strict controls in place on fortified foods to ensure people did not exceed recommended daily intakes.

The Labour government said last year it was still considering the recommendation alongside looking at controls on voluntary fortification and working with the UK's chief medical officers on the issue. It is too early to tell whether the new administration will act on the issue. For manufacturers, this means they have to tread very carefully, as Michael da Costa, MD of The Food Doctor, discovered to his cost in 2008 when he attempted to launch a folic acid-fortified bread called Bread for Women.

Though it achieved listings in Asda, Waitrose and Tesco, the product had to be withdrawn after the FSA, despite backing the idea in principle, wrote to the chains telling them not to stock it. "The FSA came down on us like a tonne of bricks because it decided that it had not cleared putting folic acid into bread," says da Costa.

Owing to the FSA's reluctance and a lack of consumer understanding, sales disappointed, he explains. What made the failure more galling was the fact that explicit claims weren't made about the benefits of eating the bread it simply delivered higher levels of folic acid, says da Costa.

Focus On Functional Foods