"Is Your Breakfast Giving You Cancer?" is the attention-grabbing headline in the April issue of Prevention magazine, which reports:
For more than a decade, the government has required enriched grains -- most notably white flour and white rice--to be fortified with folic acid, the synthetic form of the B vitamin folate. Many food manufacturers take it further, giving breakfast cereals, nutrition bars, and beverages a folic acid boost too. The extra nutrient isn't meant for you, though -- it's added to protect fetuses from developing rare but tragic birth defects. The fortification effort appears successful: Since 1998, the number of these birth defects dropped by about 19%. But for women past the years of having children, as well as for men of any age, unnatural dosages of this nutrient don't seem to be helpful--and may even be harmful.
The article goes on:
In 2007, Joel Mason, MD, director of the Vitamins and Carcinogenesis Laboratory at the Tufts University School of Medicine, described a study of the United States and Canada suggesting that rates of colon cancer rose--following years of steady decline--in the late 1990s (around the time our food was being fortified). Better screening or an aging population could not explain the difference, which amounts to an additional 15,000 cases of cancer per year in the United States alone between 1996 and 2000, according to Mason's calculations.
This is a classic example of how a government program can have unintended consequences. Require folic acid in food on the theory that pregnant women will eat it and that that will help prevent birth defects. But men and women too young or too old to get pregnant eat the same food, and who knows what the folic acid does to them? It's as predictable as my bet that once government starts taxing "sugary sodas," you're going to start seeing all sorts of new research into the health effects of the artificial low-calorie sweeteners that aren't subject to the tax.