Scientists worldwide agree that mothers-to-be should consume
600-800mcg of folate daily
both before conception and during early pregnancy.
It is recommended they obtain this through foods that contain
folate naturally as well as by consuming folic acid, the form of
folate that is added to fortified foods and food supplements.
In doing so, they will significantly lower the risk of giving
birth to a baby with an abnormality to the brain or spine – known
as a neural tube defect (NTD).
For this reason, women who are planning to become pregnant are
advised to ensure their intake of folic acid is adequate.
Born and bread
However, a large proportion of pregnancies are unplanned – the figure
is as high as
50% in the USA. 1
In response, many countries have put in place programmes to fortify
everyday foods with folic acid – often bread, maize or rice,
because they are so widely consumed.
Fortification programs such as these are seen as key to
ensuring that all women of child-bearing age have enough
folic acid in their diet – just in case they become pregnant
Keeping NTDs in check
Fortification’s impact has been positive and rates of NTDs are
lower today than they were in the past.
But more needs to be done. Globally, there are still
18.6 NTD births per 10,000 livebirths. 2
However, the picture varies considerably, with rates in some
parts of the world significantly lower than in others.
In South Asia the figure is as high as 31.2 per 10,000 livebirths.
By contrast, across Latin America and the Caribbean there are 8.6.
In the USA, the figure is lower still. In fact, the evidence
from here suggests that a dual strategy of fortifying food and
taking food supplements that contain folic acid represents
the most effective way to keep NTDs in check.
The US has shown how it’s possible to lower NTD rates with a
It has an extensive mandatory folic acid fortification program,
covering bread, cereals, flour, corn meal, pasta, rice and other
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control & Protection – a US
government body – recommends that all women of reproductive age obtain
400mcg of folic acid a day from food supplements to help prevent NTDs.
That’s in addition to the folic acid they consume in fortified foods
and the folate they get from a
varied diet. 3
As a result, America now has one of the lowest NTD birth rates
in the world – just
5 per 10,000 livebirths. 4
Scientific evidence shows beyond doubt that consuming folic acid at
adequate levels helps to lower the risk of NTDs.
There is also a growing consensus that food supplements have a key role
to play in ensuring that women of child-bearing age achieve a daily
folic acid intake that is sufficiently high.
The World Health Organization, for example, recognizes the benefits
of taking a folic acid supplement daily to
prevent NTDs: 5
"All women, from the moment they begin trying to conceive until
12 weeks of gestation, should take a folic acid supplement
(400mcg folic acid daily)"
It’s clear there is widespread agreement supporting the benefits of
folic acid food supplements for women who are capable of becoming pregnant.
And yet approximately 260,000 pregnancies are still affected by
NTDs every year. 6
The majority of these are preventable with folic acid.
A combined strategy of fortification and the use of food supplements
has been shown to be the most effective way to deliver folic acid
at the levels needed to effect change.
It’s an approach that offers mothers-to-be the best of both worlds
and their babies the best start in life.