Simple Vitamin Reaps Big Benefits

folic acid graphic

Over the last ten years folic acid has developed a reputation as something of a wonder vitamin: a simple way to prevent devastating birth defects.

"How often are you in the position of being able to say 'Take this simple vitamin and this horrible birth defect will largely go away?"' said Dr. Nancy Green, the medical director for the March of Dimes.

But, reports CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin, the organization that devotes itself to delivering healthy babies is delivering disturbing news about folic acid: the majority of American women who should be taking it, are not.

"Only about one-third of women of childbearing age take folic acid before they're pregnant," said Green.

Folic acid is a B vitamin that is crucial for healthy development of the brain and spine. Taken before becoming pregnant, just 400 micrograms a day can reduce birth defects known as neural tube defects by 70 percent.

Folic acid occurs naturally in fruits and leafy green vegetables. The government even puts it in breakfast cereals and breads. But experts say that's not enough, and that all women interested in having children -- even in the future -- should be taking a folic acid supplement.

But many women don't.

"I think most women don't even think it's a priority, or don't even know how important it is. So they don't take it," said Marla Gilbert, who started taking folic acid after losing an earlier pregnancy.

Her obstetrician, Dr. Victor Klein, says people are stubborn about their health. "People still smoke, people still don't wear their seatbelts and some people don't take their prenatal vitamins or folic acid when they're trying to become pregnant."

Experts say that kind of behavior will have to change if people want to reap the big benefits of a simple vitamin.