More folic acid, less salt and junk food!

As in most other European countries, overweight and obesity have risen dramatically in Germany over the last 20 years. Children and adolescents are increasingly affected. Representatives of the national food safety agencies and the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) therefore agreed in Paris on 13 January 2004 to cooperate more closely on questions related to the prevention of food-related diseases. The meeting was staged at the invitation of the Agence Française de Sécurité Sanitaire des Aliments (AFSSA). The main themes were how to avoid high blood pressure, neural tube defects (open spine) and overweight amongst children and adolescents. There was also an exchange of experience on national prevention measures. Professor Andreas Hensel, President of BfR, described the meeting as an important step towards the effective networking of the national scientific institutions. “Food risks“, according to Hensel, “along with substance and biological risks of foods figure amongst the main topics of consumer health protection“. The assessment of all these risks is the key focus of the work of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment.

By means of targeted initiatives the European agencies and institutions wish, in future, to contribute to the more effective control of overweight and related chronic disorders like high blood pressure, other cardiovascular diseases and Diabetes mellitus on the national and European levels. This is not possible without the cooperation of the food and catering industries. Possible solutions like reducing salt content in foods and dishes (one of the risk factors for high blood pressure) can only be jointly elaborated.

Experience is available from Germany. Since the Nutritive Value Labelling Ordinance was amended here in 1988, manufacturers and caterers can make advertising claims about the low salt contents in foods and also reduced contents in certain foods like bread, cakes and pastries, ready-to-serve meals, soups, sausages, cheese and cheese products. “Besides reducing salt intake and normalising body weight“ commented Dr. Rolf Großklaus, head of the BfR Nutritional Medicine Unit who reported on German experiences in Paris, “changes in other lifestyle factors can also effectively contribute to reducing high blood pressure“. More physical exercise, moderate alcohol consumption, stopping smoking, dismantling stress and high consumption of fruit and vegetables rich in potassium are some of them.

Every year between 600 and 800 children with neural tube defects are born in Germany. High folic acid intake prior to the commencement of pregnancy can help to reduce this number. That's why women of childbearing age should ensure that they have a high enough intake of folic acid. This can be from foods naturally rich in folates like fruit and vegetables, through the additional intake of folic acid preparations or the consumption of foods fortified with folic acid. The possibility of fortification of foods with folic acid is voluntary in Germany. In order to be able to better assess the effect of different levels of fortification on the folic acid supply of different groups in the population, BfR is currently working together with the Robert Koch Institute and the Research Institute for Children's Nutrition on a risk assessment based on available consumption data. Furthermore, BfR recommends promoting the individual additional supply of women of childbearing age with folic acid by means of national campaigns in order to prevent neural tube defects in babies in an even more targeted manner.

The national and European agencies have summarised the results of their meeting in a joint opinion. The text of the opinion is attached to this press release.

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