This week is Folic Acid Awareness Week, an annual informational event hosted and promoted by the International Federation for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus (IF). Folic acid is a critical supplement required prior to and during pregnancy in order to prevent neural tube defects (NTD). The neural tube is the part of the embryo from which the brain and spinal cord are formed. Defects during this stage of growth, like spina bifida and hydrocephalus, develop during pregnancy and are present at birth (called “congenital”). While there are successful treatments for individuals with these congenital conditions, the best treatment is prevention. Folic acid, an essential component required for the proper closing of the embryo’s neural tube 28 days after conception, can prevent most NTDs when taken as a supplement to a person’s diet before and after pregnancy. Folic acid also is found in many “fortified foods,” which are foods enriched with with micronutrients beneficial to human health and development.
Here are other key facts every pregnant and planning-to-get-pregnant person should know about folic acid, NTDs, and fortified foods, as shared by IF.
- During pregnancy, the body requires more micronutrients such as vitamin A, iron, iodine and folate. Deficiencies can impact both the parent and the baby.
- Although a healthy diet would normally provide you with folate, it is not sufficient alone to get the recommended folic acid intake to support and protect a pregnancy.
- Folic acid supplements or foods fortified with folic acid are essential.
- On average, 1 in 500 newborns are affected by neural tube defects (NTD). Most NTDs, such as spina bifida, are preventable thanks to folic acid and food fortification.
- Up to 90% of babies affected by spina bifida are also affected by hydrocephalus. By reducing the risk of NTDs we can also reduce the risk of associated hydrocephalus.
- While NTDs are multifaceted conditions that can occur for several reasons, since 1991, it has been scientifically established that folate insufficiency is a known risk factor for NTDs.
- The World Health Organization recommends taking a daily folic acid supplementation of 400mcg for at least 12 weeks before conception, and every day throughout pregnancy.
- A balanced and nutritious diet benefit to growth and development of the baby and decrease the risk of many birth defects.
- Fortification of foods with folic acid is a powerful and established food systems intervention with a proven track record of virtually eliminating the vitamin and mineral deficiencies that can cause NTDs.
- Research and evidence show that fortifying food with folic acid—the synthetic form of folate—is a successful intervention that improves folate levels for people of reproductive age before they get pregnant to a level that provides the maximum preventive protection against NTDs.
- Consuming a well-balanced diet rich in natural folates, eating fortified breads and cereals in addition to folic acid supplementation will help to reduce the risk of NTDs.
- Large-scale food fortification with nutrients like folic acid is key to achieving a healthier, more equitable food system. When even the poorest households have access to a baseline of essential vitamins and minerals, wellbeing improves and societies become more resilient in times of crisis.