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August 3, 2009 | by  | in Opinion |
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No folate inbread, TV from the moon, and Google on your computer

science

Last Wednesday the government released a discussion document proposing that the mandatory fortification of folic acid in bread be deferred until May 2012.

In case you’ve missed all bread-related news over the last few years, here’s a quick recap: in July 2004, then-Health Minister Annette King released a discussion document about whether or not fortification of bread with folic acid should be voluntary or compulsory. Two years later, in June 2007, King announced the mandatory fortification of bread with folic acid, which she described as a “triumph for humanity and common sense,” and said could result in a 70% reduction in the risk of neural tube deficits. Organic and non-yeast leavened bread were exempt from the mandatory fortification.

The requirement was due to come into force this September; however, in the meantime, a new government which is less disposed to regulation and more matey with the invisible hand has come to power. Minister for Food Safety Kate Wilkinson says she’s “never been a fan” of the mandatory requirement.

The Greens have never really been keen on the idea of adding what they call “a synthetic additive” to bread either, but seem to be perched on the fence about the issue. Sue Kedegly says she’s glad that there will be further public consultation, but thinks that three to six months (rather than two years) would be adequate and hopes that bakers follow through on their promise to voluntarily introduce folic acid to 50 percent of the bread they sell.

Wilkinson denied that the deferral was timed for after the next election (she said no about six times in a row when asked by National Radio, so it must be true), and said that a deferral would give more time to “look at the science”.

Folate is the naturally occurring form of folic acid (aka Vitamin B9). Insufficient folate in the diet of pregnant women has been associated with neural tube deficits like spina bifida, which occurs when the neural tube of a developing fetus does not close properly. Spina bifida affects the brain and spinal cord, and usually results in physical and/or intellectual disability. People with spina bifida can face a lifetime of surgeries.

A diet rich in folate or folate supplements is pretty much universally recommended to pregnant women to reduce the risk of neural tube deficits. The vast majority of research indicates that, naturally occurring or as a supplement, folate is safe for consumption. However, a handful of studies suggest that too much folate might be associated with some types of cancers; in particular where people already have cancer or a precancerous condition. Folate has also been associated with a lower incidence of certain types of cancer.

Cries of “Won’t somebody think of the children!” can be heard on every side of the debate: the Greens are worried about cancer risk associated with ingesting too much folic acid; Kate Wilkinson voiced concerns about the cumulative effect of too much folate in one’s diet (“especially for young boys”); on Q+A Paul Holmes said he’s worried he’ll get prostate cancer again; and Labour’s Health spokesperson Ruth Dyson told National Radio that National’s decision was a case of “emotion over logic”, that John Key is “denying [approximately half of the 50 children born with spina bifida between now and 2012] the chance” to be born without it, and that the “health of our babies is more important than cheap politics”.

The government is seeking public submissions on the discussion document—see nzfsa.govt.nz for details. If you want to make a submission you’d better not dilly-dally—submissions close on August 12.

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I’m a bit slow off the mark with this one, but: it’s been 40 years and one week since Neil Armstrong made “one small step for [a] man”.

Back on Earth, six hundred million people around the world watched Neil Armstrong’s historic steps (almost) live, and (almost) simultaneously.

This is a pretty impressive achievement given the technology of the day, and there’s a great (if rather technical and detailed) account of how the world was able to watch the moon landing live here.

It’s based around the Parkes radio telescope, one of the Australian receiving stations for images and data from the moon landing, so you can read it and cheer for our Antipodean brethren. Then go watch The Dish, a movie about the Parkes Observatory, staring Sam Neill (who as we all know is a New Zealander, despite his birth in Northern Ireland).

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I almost fainted with excitement when I read Google’s announcement earlier this month that Google is building a Google Chrome Operating System.

The operating system will initially be for netbooks, and will be commercially available to run on netbooks in the later half of 2010.

Google says it’ll open-source the code later this year so keep a eye on googleblog.blogspot.com for details.

And if you haven’t downloaded the Google Chrome web browser yet, you should definitely check it out—it’s sleek and pretty, with cool features like search and web page suggestions direct from the address bar, and every tab running separately, so if one page crashes it doesn’t crash the entire browser. The ease of ad-blocking in Firefox is far superior, but Chrome wins in both looks and ease of use. You can download Chrome (and read more than you’ll ever want to know) at google.com/chrome.

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  1. Matt F. says:

    I know this is kind of almost a month old and stuff, but your articles rock every time. Which is good.

  2. Anna says:

    Thanks! :D

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