Folic acid in cereal cuts birth defects by half, studies find

The rate of birth defects such as spina bifida has been cut in half in Canada since grain products fortified with folic acid hit the market

The rate of certain birth defects, such as spina bifida, has been cut in half in Canada since grain products fortified with folic acid hit the market in 1998, new research suggests.

One study, published in Tuesday's edition of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, showed the incidence of neural tube defects which tend to occur when pregnant women are deficient in folic acid dropped by nearly 55 per cent since 1995.

Another study, published in the same edition, showed a nearly 47 per cent drop in neural tube defects in Ontario.

"Our results help to validate the decision to have food fortified with folic acid and may encourage the implementation of fortification in countries that have not implemented such strategies," the authors of the Halifax study wrote.

Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, also called vitamin B-9, which is found in citrus fruits, nuts, liver and dark green, leafy vegetables.

The vitamin has many important functions in the body, but it was in the mid-1960s that scientists discovered that folate deficiency might be the cause of neural tube defects, in which the central nervous system fails to develop fully in the fetus.

Neural tube defects can lead to spina bifida, a defect of the spinal cord and back bones, and less common defects of the brain such as anencephaly, when the brain doesn't develop fully, and encephalocele, when a portion of the brain protrudes from the skull.

Medical authorities began campaigns in the 1990s to tell women of child-bearing age to take folic acid supplements. The two studies found the campaigns didn't get the message across; the rates of neural tube defects didn't go down.

Since January 1998, grain products in the U.S. such as flour, breakfast cereals and pasta have been fortified with folic acid, by order of the Food and Drug Administration.

Canada followed suit in November 1998.