Folic Acid Information
Folic acid is a water soluble B-vitamin. Water soluble means it does not stay in the body for a very long time and therefore needs to be consumed on a daily basis.
There are two forms of folic acid. The first is the synthetic or manufactured form of vitamin B, frequently available in pill form. Folate is another form of the B vitamin that occurs naturally in food. Both forms are equally beneficial, although an individual has to consume large quantities of foods high in natural folate to equal the amount easily obtained by taking one vitamin supplement pill.
Folic acid works to prevent neural tube defects (NTD), birth defects of the brain and spinal cord. NTD occur in the first month of pregnancy, before many women know they are pregnant.
Folic acid is recommended for all women of childbearing age because 50 percent of pregnancies in the United States are unplanned. Folic acid works to prevent these birth defects only if taken consistently before pregnancy and in the first few weeks of pregnancy.
|Frequently Asked Questions|
Why is folic acid so important? Scientific research has proven that folic acid can prevent up to 70 percent of neural tube defects-birth defects of the brain and spinal cord-that are among the most serious types of birth defects.
How much folic acid is needed to prevent birth defects? The U.S. Public Health Service recommends that women of childbearing age take 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid daily before getting pregnant and continue taking it into the first month of pregnancy. The easiest way to ensure that women are getting enough folic acid is to eat a healthy diet and take a vitamin that contains the recommended 400 micrograms of folic acid everyday, before becoming pregnant.
Do some women need more folic acid? Women who have already had a baby with a brain or spinal cord defect or have a family history of birth defects should consult their doctor before their next pregnancy about the amount of folic acid they should take.
Studies have shown that taking a larger daily dose of folic acid (like 4 milligrams), beginning at least one month before pregnancy and consistently during the first trimester of pregnancy, reduces a woman's chance of having another NTD-affected pregnancy by as much as 70 percent.
How does the body use folic acid? The body more readily absorbs folic acid from vitamin pills and fortified foods than it absorbs folate from food. It is estimated that 50 percent of food folate is absorbed by the body, while approximately 85 percent of folic acid in fortified foods and 100 percent of folic acid in vitamin pills are absorbed. The body does not know the difference between natural and synthetic sources of the vitamin; however, once it reaches the bloodstream, it functions the same way.
Does folic acid have other health benefits? In recent years, doctors have realized that folic acid is important for everyone. Folic acid plays an important role in the production of normal red blood cells and that individuals who were deficient in folic acid could develop a form of anemia called megaloblastic anemia. Additionally, recent studies have suggested that folic acid may help prevent heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, especially colon cancer, and lowers the breast cancer risk in women who consume alcohol.
What are some sources of folic acid? Since 1998 the FDA mandated that all cereals, breads, pastas and other foods labeled “enriched” be fortified with 140 micrograms of folic acid per 100 grams of grain. Fortification is a process through which folic acid is added to foods, thereby making it easier for women to obtain folic acid from their diets. Total Corn Flakes, Multigrain Cheerios, Special K, Life, and Product 19 are some examples of folic acid fortified cereals available at most grocery stores today. Check the labels and look for cereals with 100% of the Daily Value for folic acid.
Many other foods, like oranges, orange juice, leafy green vegetables like collard greens and spinach, broccoli, peanuts, dried beans and peas, lentils and whole grains are naturally high in folic acid. However, the body may only absorb and use about half the folic acid contained in these foods and some folic acid may be lost in cooking and processing. Since it is difficult to obtain enough folic acid through diet alone, it is recommended that a multi-vitamin pill containing folic acid be taken daily.
What types of services does the Department of Health provide regarding folic acid and birth defects prevention? The Department’s Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program provides folic acid education to postpartum women enrolled in the program. Call 1-800-WIC-WINS to learn more about the WIC program or visit the WIC web page.
Outreach Education and Supply Links
Birth Defects Research and Prevention Links
Bureau of Family Health
Division of Newborn Screening and Genetics
625 Forster St.
7th Floor, East Wing
Harrisburg, PA 17120-0701