Folic Acid: Are You Getting Enough?

Wheat Foods Council

Folic acid, a B vitamin, is a big deal and this week is National Folic Acid Awareness Week.  Not only can folic acid and folate containing foods help prevent devastating birth defects but they may also help protect against heart disease, and colon, cervical and breast cancers.  Preliminary research also indicates a connection between adequate folic acid intake and a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease as well as Parkinson’s disease.

By far, the most dramatic impact of folic acid can be seen in the rate of infants born with neural tube birth defects (NTDs).  Sadly, each year, approximately 3,000 babies are born in the U.S. with NTDs including Spina Bifida and anencephaly that affect the closing of spinal cord and skull during the first few weeks after conception.  NTDs can cause profound lifelong disabilities such as mental retardation, and partial or complete paralysis.

Fortunately, up to 70% of NTDs may be preventable. Beginning in 1998, all enriched flour products  were fortified with folic acid, making it much more widely available.  Folic acid is the dietary supplement form of folate that is added when foods are fortified.  Folate occurs naturally in foods like leafy greens (collards, spinach, and kale) and in fruits and juices.   It has been estimated that fortification with folic acid results in approximately1,000 additional healthy babies born each year without NTDs. 

NTDs still occur more frequently than they should because many women of child-bearing age do not get the required 400 μg per day of folic acid.  Hispanic and Latina women are at higher risk for having babies with NTDs because they consume lower amounts of folic acid. Since up to half of all pregnancies are not planned, its important that women consume the recommended amounts of folic acid each day so that blood folate levels are high enough if pregnancy occurs.  The good news: this isn’t hard to do because enriched grain foods such as breads, cereals and pasta are tasty and healthy ways to include folic acid in the diet along with folate in fruits and vegetables.  Here are some commonly consumed sources of folate and folic acid followed by the amount of folate (μg/serving):
Dietary Folate Equivalents**(DFE) of Common Foods

Ready-to-eat breakfast cereals (read labels for exact amount) (1 oz. ) - 100-400
Enriched wheat flour tortilla (8”) - 98
Enriched Corn flour tortilla (6”) - 48
Enriched pasta (½ cup) - 80
Whole wheat bread (1 slice) -14
Enriched white bread (1 slice) - 37
Kidney beans -114
Lentils - 179
Spinach, raw (½ cup) - 29
Spinach, steamed (½ cup) - 131
Orange juice, fresh squeezed  (½ cup) - 37
**DFE is a measure developed to account for the difference in the absorption of food folate and synthetic folic acid from dietary supplements or foods fortified with folic acid.

Bottom Line:  If you are a woman and may become pregnant, make sure you are meeting your folic acid needs with foods and a dietary supplement if needed.

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