Whenever I go to my local grocery store or supermarket, I am amazed by the new international foods and food ingredients that are available for people to buy, cook and eat.
This is whether you are an immigrant like me looking to cook your own traditional food, or are wanting to indulge in the cuisine from another culture.
With the unbelievable speed that our country's demographics are changing, it is important that policies developed a decade or so ago are also reviewed and implemented in a way that suits the new and always evolving look of New Zealand.
While citing the benefits that Australia has seen with implementation of mandatory folic acid fortification of wheat flour for making bread 12 years ago, the New Zealand Government announced the same policy just a few days ago which is going to be fully in place by 2023.
A press release announcing the policy said that fortifying all non-organic wheat flour for making bread could prevent between 162 and 240 neural tube defects over 30 years and that introducing mandatory fortification is a safe way to ensure women of childbearing age are supported to increase their folic acid consumption.
Fortification of locally milled wheat flour for breadmaking is great. But the days of New Zealanders, especially immigrant population groups, relying solely on New Zealand produced bread or milled flour, is becoming a thing of the past.
Census over the years from 2006 to 2018 show Asian ethnic groups in New Zealand increased from 354,552 (9.18 per cent) in 2006 to 707,598 (15.05 per cent) in 2018. Out of 707,598, as per 2018 census, roughly around 50 per cent (358,650) were females. The median age of these females was 31.3 years. Exactly the age range that matters.
Two top ethnicities that also happen to rely hugely on imported food items – the Chinese and Indian populations have grown from 147,570 in 2006 to 247,770 in 2018 and 104,583 in 2006 to 239,193 in 2018, respectively.
Many food items are imported directly from countries such as India or China. Because of the brand familiarity that comes with these imported food items, they are usual household food items in many ethnic families. These items include the staple food of wheat flour, which is sold in ethnic grocery stores and consumed routinely. A common example of the regular and daily use of imported wheat flour, is in the making of roti (unleavened bread) in Indian households.
Because of these choices, there are families that may not consume even a single loaf of local bread in a week, keeping much to their regular food routines from back home.
It is well publicised that developing and under-developed countries have a higher prevalence of birth defects than developed countries, including neural tube defects.
Various publications indicate China is on the higher side of New Zealand and India on the higher side of China for numbers of babies born with birth defects. There can be many reasons for various birth defects but when it comes to neural tube defects, the research definitely backs folic acid in diet being the way to make a difference.
We know language and other factors are barriers when running any educational programmes for awareness. Because of such barriers, it becomes even more important for the policy of mandatory folic acid fortification of wheat flour for making bread - which targets those who are not aware of the importance of folic acid in the early days of pregnancy and often unaware especially in those early days that they are pregnant - to include the ever-growing ethnic population groups.
Any interventions that can save a life or life-long disability and hardship due to a disability as a result of neural tube defect is worth support. But such considerations would be even better if they are done in a manner that encompasses all.
By putting measures in place for those who rely heavily on imported food ingredients, efforts to bring equities amongst some groups would not then end up leading to inequities for others.
• Former National MP and former Families Commissioner, Dr Parmjeet Parmar has PhD in Biological Sciences from the University of Auckland.