Folic Acid

Posted on by Dr. Christopher J. Portier

January 6-12, 2013 is National Folic Acid Awareness Week. The following blog post explains the importance of folic acid in the diet of a pregnant woman and her unborn child 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, which are major birth defects of a baby’s brain or spine that can cause severe disability or death. These defects occur during early pregnancy, often before a woman knows she is pregnant. For example, spina bifida is one type of neural tube defect and may cause physical and mental disabilities that range from mild to severe. CDC has played a major role in changes that dramatically decreased the number of babies born with neural tube defects.

Did you Know…

In 1992, the U.S. Public Health Service recommended that all women of childbearing age capable of becoming pregnant consume 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid daily to prevent neural tube defects. Research has shown that a woman’s intake of folic acid prior to conception and throughout the first few weeks of pregnancy can prevent many neural tube defects.

Environmental Health Lab Detects Low Folate Levels

Watch a video to hear individuals with spina bifida and their parents talk about living with neural tube defects.
Watch a video to hear individuals with spina bifida and their parents talk about living with neural tube defects.

Folate is a type of B vitamin known to be especially important when cells rapidly divide and grow during pregnancy and infancy. Folate occurs naturally in leafy green vegetables, fruits, and dried beans and peas. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate used in supplements and added to fortify foods.

In the mid 1990’s, NCEH’s Environmental Health Laboratory used blood samples collected by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to measure folate levels in the U.S. population. CDC found that folate levels were particularly low in women of childbearing age. CDC scientists were concerned 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 started requiring folic acid fortification of enriched cereal grain products such as enriched wheat flour, bread, pasta, and rice. Breakfast cereals are fortified with folic acid due to the Food Additive Regulation. This regulation permits breakfast cereals to be fortified. Both of these measures helped to reduce the risk of neural tube defects in newborns.

Folate Fortification: A Sustained Public Health Success

Now you Know…

Synthetic folic acid is the simple, man-made form of the B vitamin folate. In addition to fortified breakfast cereals, folic acid is found in most multivitamins and in U.S. foods 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 cannot be sure that eating folate would have the same benefits as getting 400 micrograms of man-made (synthetic) folic acid. Women who can get pregnant should consume 400 micrograms of synthetic folic acid in addition to the natural food folate obtained from a varied diet.

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. Since the introduction of fortification, neural tube defect rates have decreased.

Before fortification began in 1998, about 4,000 babies were affected by neural tube defects each year in the U. S., and nearly 1,200 died. Since folic acid fortification began, the yearly number of pregnancies affected by neural tube defects has dropped to about 3,000, and the related deaths have declined to about 800.

Learn more about preventing neural tube defects.

Posted on by Dr. Christopher J. PortierTags

One comment on “Folic Acid”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    This is a great article on specifically *why* folate and folic acid is important. Pregnant women today seem to have a pretty good idea that you need to take your prenatal, but I think a lot of them don’t really understand the reason behind it. And of course the danger in that is – if they don’t know how important it is, then it becomes that much easier to just ‘forget once in awhile,’ or ‘skip a day’… then that day becomes a week, a month, and so on.

    Shirley Stark / FMC

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Page last reviewed: November 21, 2013
Page last updated: November 21, 2013