The Department of Health is seeking people’s views on whether folic acid should be added to flour to help prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida.
The launch of the 12-week consultation follows years of campaigns urging the Government to make the fortification of flour mandatory.
Women trying to become pregnant are already advised to take a daily supplement of 400 micrograms of folic acid before they conceive and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
But many women do not follow the health advice even if their pregnancy is planned. They might forget or not be aware they are pregnant until it is too late.
Around 1,000 pregnancies are diagnosed with neural tube defects each year in the UK and over 40% of cases are fatal.
Spina bifida accounts for about half of these diagnoses and most babies with spina bifida need ongoing care.
Fortification is seen as the most effective way of reaching women with the lowest intakes, typically younger woman from deprived areas.
The move would put the UK in line with more than 60 other countries that have started adding folic acid to flour, including Australia, Canada and the US.
In Australia, neural tube defects fell 14% after it introduced the legal requirement to add folic acid to bread flour.
There is some evidence that folic acid intake can increase the risk of masking vitamin B12 deficiency in people with pernicious anaemia, but only at intakes of 5 milligrams a day.
The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition found that the prevalence of B12 deficiency did not increase after mandatory fortification was introduced in the US.
Commenting on the announcement, Clare Livingstone, professional policy advisor at the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) said that the RCM is ‘delighted’ with the launch.
She said: ‘Not all pregnancies are planned meaning many women will not have taken folic acid around the time of conception and very early in their pregnancy. This is when folic acid is most effective and that is why this announcement is so welcome.
‘Folic acid fortification of flour will significantly help to reduce the number of fetal anomalies related to neural tube defects. The sooner this is done, the sooner this will start to happen.’
Public health minister Seema Kennedy said: ‘We all want to give our children the best start in life and a birth defect diagnosis is devastating for parents.
‘The simple measure of adding folic acid to flour would help spare hundreds of families from such a life-changing event.
‘Women from the poorest areas are less likely to take folic acid supplements and it is right that we do all we can to protect the most vulnerable in society.’
Professor Louis Levy, head of nutrition science at Public Health England, said: ‘Nine in ten UK women aged 16 – 49 have blood folate levels associated with increased risk of neural tube defect-affected pregnancy.
‘With so many women at increased risk, mandatory fortification of flour is a safe and effective way of reducing this number.’