An estimated 1.9 billion people are at risk of iodine deficiency, a medical condition that can stunt your brain power. Iodine deficiency – which can be avoided by eating seafood, cereal and cow’s milk (due to iodine in cattle feed) – doesn’t just affect the developing world. Up to one-third of children in Europe are thought to need more iodine in their diets.
Because of this, some argue that we should add iodine to salt or provide it in pill-form to pregnant and breast-feeding women, who need even more of it than everyone else. But would the benefits really be worth the cost?
Iodine is a micronutrient that is essential for the thyroid to produce hormones that are crucial for normal brain and neurological development. If you don’t get enough iodine when you’re a child it can result in intellectual disability. A recent national survey demonstrated mild to moderate iodine deficiency in the UK and important observational evidence has linked mild to moderate iodine deficiency to lower IQ scores in UK school children.
Pregnant and breast-feeding women in particular need higher levels of iodine because they produce more thyroid hormones, transfer more iodine to their foetus and in breastmilk, and lose more through urination. Yet an estimated two-thirds of pregnant women in Europe don’t consume enough and regional surveys have confirmed mild to moderate iodine deficiency in UK pregnant women.
This is why the World Health Organisation advocates adding iodine to salt. However, European households are cutting the amount of salt they add to food (in the UK salt added to food represents only about 15% of all salt consumed).
An alternative solution is to give pregnant women iodine tablets. Indeed, many prenatal vitamin-mineral supplements already contain iodine. Yet there is no current UK guidance recommending iodine supplementation in pregnancy and the NHS-prescribed “Healthy Start” vitamins do not contain the nutrient.