SO, the UK's Food Standards Agency has recommended mandatory fortification of bread or flour with folic acid in an attempt to reduce birth defects.

Around 13m Brits don't eat enough folic acid - essential for red blood cell formation and the development of the spine in the first stages of pregnancy. Women are advised to take extra folic acid while trying to get pregnant and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

However, research has found that fewer than half of women follow this advice - either because the pregnancy was unplanned or because they were not aware of the advice.

But this vitamin is found naturally in foods such as mushrooms, yeast extract, green vegetables, nuts and whole grains. Research shows vegetarian diets tend to contain an abundance of these foods and are therefore rich in folic acid.

This gives babies born to vegetarian mothers - planned or otherwise - a clear head start.

Given the hazards of over-consumption by some groups, surely the solution is promoting a healthy diet for all, rather than blanket fortification?

For more information on vegetarian nutrition in pregnancy, visit theVegetarian & Vegan Foundation's website or call 0117 9705190.

Amanda Woodvine, Senior Health Campaigner, Vegetarian & Vegan Foundation