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March of Dimes Highlights Importance of Folic Acid Intake

The March of Dimes | 1/7/2014, 4:40 p.m.
Taking a daily multivitamin containing the B vitamin folic acid is one of the best ways to prevent birth defects ...
Courtesy of the March of Dimes

Taking a daily multivitamin containing the B vitamin folic acid is one of the best ways to prevent birth defects and an important step toward having a healthy baby, yet only about one-third of women know about it.

January 5–11 is National Folic Acid Awareness Week, a time when the March of Dimes reminds all women of childbearing age about the important role folic acid plays in preventing serious birth defects of the brain and spine, known as neural tube defects (NTDs). Daily consumption of folic acid beginning before and continuing through the early months of pregnancy is crucial because NTDs occur in the first few weeks following conception, often before a woman knows she is pregnant.

“All women of reproductive age should be taking a multivitamin containing folic acid every day,” advises Dr. Siobhan M. Dolan, M.D., MPH, coauthor of the first March of Dimes book Healthy Mom, Healthy Baby: The Ultimate Pregnancy Guide. “It’s such an easy thing to do, and it can provide a major benefit to your future family. About half of pregnancies are unplanned, so take your folic acid daily and be sure to give your baby the healthiest start in life.”

Dr. Dolan’s book advises taking 400 micrograms of folic acid before conceiving and up to 600 to 800 micrograms after. The March of Dimes has worked to increase awareness about the importance of folic acid for women of childbearing age and helped bring about folic acid fortification of the grain and cereal supply. “Since folic acid was added to the grain food supply in 1998, our nation has seen a 26 percent decrease in NTDs,” Dr. Dolan notes.

The March of Dimes and its partners are currently petitioning the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to fortify corn masa flour with this important B vitamin because NTDs are more prevalent in the Hispanic population than other racial or ethnic groups. By targeting food made with corn masa for folic acid fortification, it would be possible to lower the rate of NTDs among Hispanics. Studies have shown that folic acid works if taken before conception and during early pregnancy.

Although folic acid fortification of enriched cereal grains such as bread and pasta was mandated by the FDA in 1998, corn masa flour lacks federal regulatory approval for the addition of folic acid. The rate of NTDs in the U.S. has decreased since fortification; however, about 3,000 pregnancies in the U.S. still are affected by NTDs annually and Hispanics have the highest rate when compared to other racial or ethnic groups.

Hispanic women are about 20 percent more likely to have a child with an NTD than non-Hispanic white women, according to the National Birth Defects Prevention Network. Although the reasons for the disparity are not well understood, Hispanic women have been found to have lower intake of folic acid overall, compared to white women.

To learn more about folic acid, including foods that include folate (the natural form of folic acid), visit http://www.marchofdimes.com/pregnancy/folic-acid-keeps-you-and-your-baby-healthy.aspx.