January 5-11, 2014, is National Folic Acid Awareness Week. This blog post explains the importance of folic acid in the diet of women who may become pregnant and the significance of folic acid research and biomonitoring by NCEH’s Environmental Health Laboratory.
A couple of decades ago, about 4,000 babies were born each year with neural tube defects – major birth defects of a baby’s brain or spine that can cause severe disability or death. These defects occur during early pregnancy and often before a woman knows she is pregnant. One type of neural tube defect is spina bifida, which may cause physical and mental disabilities ranging from mild to severe. CDC played a major role in changes that have dramatically decreased the number of babies born with neural tube defects.
Did you know?
Over 20 years ago, research showed that taking folic acid before becoming pregnant and during the first few weeks of pregnancy can prevent many neural tube defects. Because of this research, the U.S. Public Health Service began recommending that all women who are able to become pregnant take 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day.
Environmental Health Lab Detects Low Folate Levels
Folate is a type of B vitamin that is very important when cells quickly divide and grow during pregnancy. Folate occurs naturally in leafy green vegetables, fruits, and dried beans and peas. Folic acid is the man-made form of folate used in supplements and added to foods.
In the mid 1990’s, NCEH’s Environmental Health Laboratory used blood samples taken by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to measure folate levels in the U.S. population. CDC found that folate levels were low in women of childbearing age. This finding concerned CDC scientists because they knew that low folate levels were linked to neural tube defects.
Good News! CDC Research Supports Policy Decisions
CDC’s folate research supported policy decisions that have protected children and families. In 1998, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring that folic acid be added to cereal grain products such as wheat flour, bread, pasta, and rice. Breakfast cereals are fortified with folic acid due to the Food Additive Regulation. These actions helped to lower the risk of neural tube defects in babies.
Now you know!
Folic acid is the simple, man-made form of the B vitamin folate. In addition to fortified breakfast cereals, folic acid is in most multivitamins and foods in the U.S. labeled as “enriched,” such as bread, pasta, and rice. The words, “folic acid” and “synthetic folic acid” mean the same thing. The body does not use folate as easily as folic acid. We can’t be sure that eating folate has the same benefits as taking 400 micrograms of man-made (synthetic) folic acid. Women who can get pregnant should take 400 micrograms of synthetic folic acid every day in addition to the natural folate they get from a varied diet.
Folate Fortification: A Sustained Public Health Success
NCEH’s Second Nutrition Report, published in 2012, indicates that folic acid fortification continues to be a public health success with a sustained positive impact on blood folate levels. Through our National Biomonitoring Program, environmental health scientists continue to measure folate levels in people who participate in NHANES.
Before fortification began in 1998, neural tube defects occurred in about 4,000 of the babies born in the U. S. each year and contributed to nearly 1,200 deaths. Since folic acid fortification began, the yearly number of babies born with neural tube defects has dropped to about 3,000, and the related deaths have dropped to about 800.