The addition of vitamin D to flour could prevent 10 million new cases of deficiency over the next 90 years, researchers say.
Mandatory fortification of wheat flour would be cost-saving and would also significantly reduce the burden on the NHS, the study suggested.
Scientists said the move would prevent 25% of the estimated 40 million new cases of deficiency over the coming nine decades.
The study indicated that offering free vitamin D supplements to targeted groups – including children, the elderly and black, Asian and minority ethnic (Bame) risk groups – would prevent an additional 8% of new cases over the same period.
Researchers from the University of Birmingham said the combination of wheat flour fortification and targeted supplementation would prevent 33% (13.2 million) of cases of vitamin D deficiency.
Fortifying flour with vitamin D alone would save the public purse £65 million by reducing demand for healthcare and treatment for vitamin D deficiency and its complications, according to the study.
Published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the research said adding the vitamin to flour would cost 12p per person per year.
Dr Magda Aguiar, who carried out the research, said: “While both supplements and fortified foods are important sources of vitamin D for the UK population, evidence suggests current UK supplementation policies are not working.
“Addressing vitamin D deficiency in the UK requires a multi-disciplinary approach, and preventing conditions that are the consequence of deficiency would save the NHS money to the extent that it would more than compensate for the money needed to implement flour fortification at a national level.”
Vitamin D is essential for skeletal growth and bone health. Deficiency can lead to rickets, soft bones, bone pain and muscle weakness.
Previous research by the university showed that in extreme cases, vitamin D deficiency in babies and children can cause seizures or heart failure as a result of a lack of calcium.
Dr Aguiar, now at the University of British Columbia, added: “We now hope that UK policy makers will consider a new national policy to fortify foods such as wheat flour with vitamin D to address this serious health issue.
“This will lead to significant benefits for the population, particularly the most vulnerable groups.”
She said a similar national food fortification policy in Finland has reduced vitamin D deficiency from 13% to 0.6% of the population.
Researchers proposed a new UK strategy to add 400 international units (IU) of vitamin D per 100g of flour, while also offering free supplements at a dose of 400 IU for children aged up to 18, as well as doses of 800 IU for all those aged over 65.
They estimated this would cost £250 million over 90 years – equivalent to 38p per person.