Folate | How Folate Can Help Prevent Birth Defects

How Folate Can Help Prevent Birth Defects

Folate | If you plan to have children some day, here’s important information for the future mother-to-be: Think folate now. Folate is a B vitamin found in a variety of foods and added to many vitamin and mineral supplements as folic acid, a synthetic form of folate.

Folate is needed both before and in the first weeks of pregnancy and can help reduce the risk of certain serious and common birth defects called neural tube defects, which affect the brain and spinal cord. The tricky part is that neural tube defects can occur in an embryo before a woman realizes she’s pregnant.

That’s why it’s important for all women of childbearing age (15 to 45) to include folate in their diets: If they get pregnant, it reduces the chance of the baby having a birth defect of the brain or spinal cord. “Adequate folate should be eaten daily and throughout the childbearing years,” said Elizabeth Yetley, Ph.D., a registered dietitian and director of FDA’s Office of Special Nutritionals.

There are several ways to do this:

** Eat fruits, dark-green leafy vegetables, dried beans and peas, and other foods that are natural sources of folate.

*Eat folic acid-fortified breakfast cereals.

*Take a vitamin supplement containing folic acid.

Folate’s potential to reduce the risk of neural tube defects is so important that the Food and Drug Administration is requiring that by 1998, food manufacturers fortify enriched grain products with folic acid.

This will give women another way to get sufficient folate: by eating fortified breads and other grains. Nutrition information on food and dietary supplement labels can help women determine whether they are getting enough folate, which is 400 micrograms (0.4 milligrams) a day before pregnancy and 800 micrograms a day during pregnancy.

Neural Tube Birth Defects

The technical names of the two major neural tube birth defects reduced by adequate folate intake are anencephaly and spina bifida. Babies with anencephaly do not develop a brain and are stillborn or die shortly after birth. Those with spina bifida have a defect of the spinal column that can result in varying degrees of handicap, from mild and hardly noticeable cases of scoliosis (a sideways bending of the spine) to paralysis and bladder or bowel incontinence.

With proper medical treatment, most babies born with spina bifida can survive to adulthood. But they may require leg braces, crutches, and other devices to help them walk, and they may have learning disabilities. About 30 percent have slight to severe mental retardation.

The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about 2,500 infants with spina bifida and anencephaly are born each year in the United States. Other maternal factors also may contribute to the development of neural tube defects. These include:

* family history of neural tube defects

* prior neural tube defect-affected pregnancy

* use of certain antiseizure medications

* severe overweight

* hot tub use in early pregnancy

* fever during early pregnancy

* diabetes.

Any woman concerned about these factors should consult her doctor.

Folate Link

Scientists first suggested a link between neural tube birth defects and diet in the 1950s. The incidence of these conditions has always been higher in low socioeconomic groups in which women may have poorer diets.

Also, babies conceived in the winter and early spring are more likely to be born with spina bifida, perhaps because the mother’s diet lacks fresh fruits and vegetables–which are good sources of folate–during the early weeks of pregnancy.

In 1991, British researchers found that 72 percent of women who had one pregnancy with a neural tube birth defect had a lower risk of having another child with this birth defect when they took prescription doses of folic acid before and during early pregnancy. Another study looked at folic acid intake in Hungarian women.

The evidence indicated that mothers who had never given birth to babies with neural tube defects and who took a multivitamin and mineral supplement with folic acid had less risk in subsequent pregnancies for having babies with neural tube defects than women given a placebo.

These studies led the U.S. Public Health Service in September 1992 to recommend that all women of childbearing age capable of becoming pregnant consume 0.4 mg of folate daily to reduce their risk of having a pregnancy affected with spina bifida or other neural tube defects.

That corresponds to FDA’s Daily Value for folic acid, which is 400 micrograms for nonpregnant women, as well as children 4 and older and adult men. For pregnant women, the Daily Value jumps to 800 micrograms.

Daily Values are dietary reference numbers used on the Nutrition Facts panel on food labels to show the amounts of various nutrients in a serving of food. Many women between 19 and 50 get only 200 micrograms of folate a day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

** Folate Sources

Folate occurs naturally in a variety of foods, including liver; dark-green leafy vegetables such as collards, turnip greens, and Romaine lettuce; broccoli and asparagus; citrus fruits and juices; whole-grain products; wheat germ; and dried beans and peas, such as pinto, navy and lima beans, and chickpeas and black-eyed peas.

Under FDA’s folic acid fortification program, the agency is requiring manufacturers to add from 0.43 mg to 1.4 mg of folic acid per pound of product to enriched flour, bread, rolls and buns, farina, corn grits, cornmeal, rice, and noodle products.

A serving of each product will provide about 10 percent of the Daily Value for folic acid. Whole-grain products do not have to be enriched because they contain natural folate. Some of the natural folate in non-whole-grain products is lost in the process of refining whole grains.

The fortification regulations become effective Jan. 1, 1998, although manufacturers may begin folic acid fortification immediately, as long as they adhere to the regulations.

Folate also can be obtained from dietary supplements, such as folic acid tablets and multivitamins with folic acid, and from fortified breakfast cereals. A study reported in the March 9, 1996, issue of The Lancet, suggested that folic acid, the synthetic form of folate, may be better absorbed than folate found naturally in foods.

Christine Lewis, Ph.D., a registered dietitian and special assistant in FDA’s Office of Special Nutritionals, said, “This is a complex and poorly understood issue, and more data are needed.”

Finding Foods with Folate

Certain information on food and dietary supplement labels can help women spot foods containing substantial amounts of folate. Some labels may claim that the product is “high in folate or folic acid,” which means a serving of the food provides 20 percent or more of the Daily Value for folic acid.

Or the label may say the food is a “good source” of folate, which means a serving of the food provides 10 to 19 percent of the Daily Value for folic acid. The exact amount will be given in the label’s Nutrition Facts panel. Some food and dietary supplement labels may carry a longer claim that says adequate folate intake may reduce the risk of neural tube birth defects. Products carrying this claim must:

provide 10 percent or more of the Daily Value for folic acid per serving

not contain more than 100 percent of the Daily Value for vitamins A and D per serving because high intakes of these vitamins are associated with other birth defects

carry a caution on the label about excess folic acid intake, if a serving of food provides more than 100 percent of the Daily Value for folic acid. FDA has set 1 mg (or 1,000 micrograms) of folate daily as the maximum safe level.

There are limited data on the safety of consuming more than 1 mg daily, and there may be a risk for people with low amounts of vitamin B12 in their bodies–for example, older people with malabsorption problems, and people on certain anticancer drugs or drugs for epilepsy whose effectiveness can diminish when taken with high intakes of folate.

list on the label’s Nutrition or Supplement Facts panel the amount by weight in micrograms and the %Daily Value of folate per serving of the product. This information, which appears toward the bottom of the panel, along with the listing of other vitamins and minerals, can be used to compare folate levels in various foods and supplements.

Optional information may appear with the health claim to let consumers know about other risks associated with neural tube birth defects, when to consult a doctor, other foods that are good sources of folate, and other important messages about neural tube defects.

Other Considerations

The claim about folate cannot imply that adequate folate intake alone will ensure a healthy baby, since so many factors can affect a pregnancy. Women should bear this in mind when contemplating pregnancy, advises Jeanne Latham, a registered dietitian and consumer safety officer in FDA’s Office of Special Nutritionals.

“Folate can make a significant contribution,” she said, “but it’s no guarantee of a healthy baby.” Genetics plays a role, as do other healthful prenatal practices, such as eating an all-around good diet. But unlike genetics, diet is a risk factor women can modify to their–and their baby’s–advantage, said Jeanne Rader, Ph.D., director of the division of science and applied technology in FDA’s Office of Food Labeling.

Folic acid is one of many nutrients needed in a healthy diet for women of childbearing age,” she said. “A well-balanced diet with a variety of foods can provide all those nutrients, including adequate amounts of folate.” Women have options for reaching the folate intake goal: They can get the necessary nutrients and calories both before and during pregnancy by eating a well-balanced diet, keeping in mind folate-rich foods, nutrition experts say.

Folic acid-fortified grain products, including breakfast cereals, will help, too. Dietary supplements are another source of folate. Any one or a combination of these options for ensuring adequate folate can help assure women of childbearing age that, if they become pregnant, their babies will be off to a healthy start.

Paula Kurtzweil is a member of FDA’s public affairs staff.


Is folate the same as B12?

Vitamin B12, also called cobalamin, is found in foods from animals, such as red meat, fish, poultry, milk, yogurt, and eggs. Folate (Vitamin B9) refers to a natural occurring form of the vitamin, whereas folic acid refers to the supplement added to foods and drinks.

What is the role of folate?

Folate (vitamin B-9) is important in red blood cell formation and for healthy cell growth and function. The nutrient is crucial during early pregnancy to reduce the risk of birth defects of the brain and spine.

Which foods are high in folate?

* Good sources of folate

* broccoli.

* brussels sprouts.

* leafy green vegetables, such as cabbage, kale, spring greens and spinach.

* peas.

* chickpeas and kidney beans.

* liver (but avoid this during pregnancy)

* breakfast cereals fortified with folic acid.

Is folate same as folic acid?

The terms “folic acid” and “folate” often are used interchangeably. However, folate is a general term used to describe the many different forms of vitamin B9: folic acid, dihydrofolate (DHF), tetrahydrofolate (THF), 5, 10-methylenetetrahydrofolate (5, 10-MTHF), and 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF) 1.

What problems can a folate deficiency cause?

Folate deficiency can cause anemia. Anemia is a condition in which you have too few RBCs. Anemia can deprive your tissues of oxygen it needs because RBCs carry the oxygen.

The symptoms of anemia that occur due to folate deficiency include:

*persistent fatigue.



*pale skin.

*shortness of breath.


Is it OK to take folate instead of folic acid?

The healthiest dietary sources of vitamin B9 are whole foods, such as leafy green vegetables. If you need to take supplements, methyl folate is a good alternative to folic acid.

Do I need folic acid or folate?

Folate and its cousin folic acid are vital for developing a healthy baby because it prevents neural tube defects. Since the neural tube develops within the first 28 days of pregnancy, it is recommended all women of childbearing years consume folate.

When should I take folic acid morning or night?

How to take folic acid

If you are taking folic acid every day, take it at the same time each day, either in the morning OR in the evening.

*Take your folic acid tablets with a glass of water.

*You can take folic acid with or without food.

*If you forget to take your dose, take it as soon as you remember.

How long does it take to correct folate deficiency?

For folate deficiency anaemia – treatment is usually for 4 months. But if the cause of your folate deficiency anaemia does not change or go away, you may have to take folic acid for longer, possibly for the rest of your life.

Do you replace B12 or folate first?

Vitamin B12 supplements are usually given by injection at first. Then, depending on whether your B12 deficiency is related to your diet, you’ll either require B12 tablets between meals or regular injections. These treatments may be needed for the rest of your life. Folic acid tablets are used to restore folate levels.

Why folic acid is bad?

There is some concern that taking too much folic acid for a long time might cause serious side effects. Some research suggests that taking folic acid in doses of 0.8-1.2 mg daily might increase the risk for cancer or increase the risk of heart attack in people who have heart problems.

Who needs folic acid?

CDC urges every woman who could become pregnant to get 400 micrograms (400 mcg) of folic acid every day. The B vitamin folic acid helps prevent birth defects. If a woman has enough folic acid in her body before and while she is pregnant, her baby is less likely to have a major birth defect of the brain or spine.

How is low folate treated?

What’s the Treatment? Folate deficiency anemia is prevented and treated by eating a healthy diet. This includes foods rich in folic acid, such as nuts, leafy green vegetables, enriched breads and cereals, and fruit. Your doctor will also likely prescribe you a daily folic acid supplement.

** folic acid benefits

Folate helps the body make healthy red blood cells and is found in certain foods. Folic acid is used to: treat or prevent folate deficiency anaemia. help your unborn baby’s brain, skull and spinal cord develop properly to avoid development problems (called neural tube defects) such as spina bifida.