Folic Acid Prevents 1,300 Neural Tube Defects Each Year

Folic Acid TabletsThe number of babies born each year with serious birth defects of the brain and spine in the United States has declined by 35 percent since 1998. Fortification of grain foods such as bread and cereal with folic acid has prevented 1,300 neural tube defects annually, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the publication Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).

Folic acid is a form of the water-soluble vitamin B9 that helps the body make healthy new cells. Folate, the naturally occurring form of the vitamin, is available through food sources such as spinach and other dark leafy greens, liver, yeast, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts. The synthetic form, folic acid, is found in fortified foods and supplements.

Neural tube defects (NTDs) are birth defects of the brain, spine, or spinal cord such as spina bifida and anencephaly. Folate deficiency increases the risk of NTDs. Supplementing with folic acid reduces the risk, especially during the first four weeks of pregnancy.

Health care professionals began recommending folic acid supplementation to women of childbearing age in 1992 after a study found that 400 micrograms daily could reduce spina bifida and other neural tube defects by up to 70 percent. However, because many pregnancies are unplanned, many women miss the opportunity to supplement. Therefore, the United States began fortifying grains with folic acid in1998 in an attempt to decrease serious birth defects of the brain and spine.

Since fortification began in 1998, neural tube defects dropped by 35 percent, or 1,300 fewer babies born with NTDs each year.

However, 25 percent of women still do not consume enough folate or folic acid. For example, Hispanic women are more likely to have a baby with spina bifida or a similar birth defect, likely because corn flour is not currently fortified. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires folic acid fortification of wheat flour but not corn flour. Hispanic women tend to consume more corn-based products. Requiring the fortification of corn flour could prevent another 40 NTDs annually.

Adds Candice Burns Hoffmann, of the CDC’s National Centers for Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, “Even with fortification, there will be some women that do not get the recommended amount of folic acid every day. We still have more work to do.”

Two recent studies found that less than one in three women supplement with folic acid before pregnancy and that sun exposure may reduce folate levels in women.


1,300 Babies Each Year Saved from Serious Birth Defects of Brain and Spine by Folic Acid:
Birth Defects Drop 35% Due to Adding Folic Acid to Flour:
Updated Estimates of Neural Tube Defects Prevented by Mandatory Folic Acid Fortification — United States, 1995–2011:

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