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Folate-Fortified Foods Fight Birth Defects

New statistics show that efforts to reduce birth defects by making sure women get enough folic acid are working.

CBS News health correspondent Dr. Emily Senay talks with the Early Show about this research.

The latest numbers, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, indicate that the rate of some common birth defects, known as neural tube defects, are down 19% since the fortification of certain grain foods with folic acid, Senay says.

Folic acid, also called folate, is a B vitamin that prevents neural tube birth defects--like spina bifida--that damage the brain. Each year, an estimated 2,500 babies are born with these defects, and many additional affected pregnancies result in stillbirth or miscarriage.

It's not clear if the reduction in birth defects is due solely to the fortification of our food supply, Senay says, but it certainly seems likely that fortified foods have helped.

In fact, a low level of public awareness was the deciding factor for government intervention in the first place. Two years ago when we started enriching foods with folic acid, it was estimated that only about one-third of women were even aware of the need for folic acid in their diet. Today, whether or not you know you need folic acid, you are probably getting it anyway in the form of enriched food.

Which foods are enriched with folic acid?

Since 1998, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has required the addition of 140 micrograms of folic acid per 100 grams of grain to foods such as cereal, bread, pasta, and other foods that are labeled "enriched" on the package.

What are other ways for a woman to get enough folic acid?

Women of childbearing age should consume 400 micrograms of folic acid every day., Besides the fortified grain-based foods, you can also eat foods that are naturally high in folic acid, such as leafy green vegetables like spinach, and citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruit. Peanuts and beans are also good dietary sources of folic acid.

If you're not the kind of person who likes to sit down and add up your weekly servings, there are also folic acid supplements. And if you already take a daily multivitamin supplement, check the label. It may also include the recommended daily 400 micrograms of folic acid.

Should women take folate even if they're not pregnant?

Yes, it's important to keep up your folic acid intake because folic acid is necessary to prevent birth defects right from the moment of conception. So taking a supplement is really a small precaution to take in order to avoid a potentially devastating catastrophe.

Could the birth defect rate be even lower?

The hope is it will continue to decline, and many predict that it could decline as much as 50- 70% if prevention efforts continue to be successful. A 19% reduction is a significant and promising move in the right direction, but we need to keep up the efforts o reduce the rate even more.

Does folic acid have any other benefits?

It may also help prevent heart disease, and studies are underway to see if that's true. The theory is that folic acid reduces the risk of heart disease by reducing levels of homocysteine in the blood, which is a risk factor for heart disease.
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