This morning on the TV programme Q+A there was a discussion of whether or not folic acid should be added to bread. This is the second time this issue has been raised since it became a political hot potato three years ago, and was put aside. At the time a Folic Acid Working Group was set up, but apparently the members of this group declined to appear on Q+A this morning. Instead, Greg Boyed interviewed Oxford Emeritus Professor of Pharmacology, David Smith, and Dr Andrew Marshall of the Paediatrics Society. The result was embarassing and frustrating to say the least.
Dr Marshall, who supports the addition of folic acid to bread, was dismissive of the evidence provided by Professor Smith to suggest possible risks with folic acid, accusing him of “cherry picking”, while simultaneously appearing to be selective in his own sources of evidence. He also called Professor Smith a “folate hater”, but then swiftly withdrew the comment. I find this type of behaviour appalling – this is the type of rhetoric which taints science and leads to the sorts of non-scientific naming calling “debates” we have seen with climate change.
Personally, I found Professor Smiths’ arguments no more convincing, especially when he emphasised that folate was synthetic and not the same as naturally occurring folic acid. If find the implied “natural is good, synthetic is bad” argument coming from a Professor of Pharmacology extraordinary.
Other frustrating arguments put forward included a big deal being made of some of Professor Smith’s research being funded by bread manufacturers, and Greg Boyed implying that because Professor Smith was an Oxford don that his views held more weight than others. Personally, I would much rather place my faith in the evidence, not rely on an argument from authority.
The panel discussion after the interviews was also annoying. Matt McCarten referred to scientists as “pointy heads”, no doubt frustrated by the conflicting views of the two experts. While I can empathise with his frustration, such insults do nothing and perpetuate the gap between scientists and the general public.
With regards to my own view on folic acid, I think that it’s mandatory addition to bread is not the way to go, primarily because of the variability in its dose. It seems to me that the best way to reduce neural birth defects is to make sure that women who need it receive a known dose of known benefit. Putting it bread just seems such a random way to administer a bioactive substance.
Having said that I am open to being persuaded otherwise, but with evidence, not rhetoric. There appears to be some early suggestions that folic acid may reduce the occurrence of strokes, which might add to the evidence for its addition. However, there are still those who argue that it can increase the risk of some forms of cancer. What really needs to be done is a thorough risk/benefit analysis incorporating ALL existing research.