50 years ago, folate deficiency was linked to birth defects | Science News



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50 Years Ago

50 years ago, folate deficiency was linked to birth defects

Excerpt from the December 9, 1967 issue of Science News

7:00am, November 30, 2017

DAILY DOSE Although folate was required for all enriched grain products in the late 90s, and other foods are naturally folate rich, some women — especially those in minority groups and of low socio-economic status — still aren’t getting enough.

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Folic acid

Pregnant women who do not have enough folic acid — a B vitamin — in their bodies can pass the deficiency on to their unborn children. It may lead to retarded growth and congenital malformation, according to Dr. A. Leonard Luhby…. “Folic acid deficiency in pregnant women could well constitute a public health problem of dimensions we have not originally recognized,” he says. — Science News. December 9, 1967


Folic acid — or folate — can prevent brain and spinal cord defects in developing fetuses. Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration required that all enriched grain products contain the vitamin starting in 1998, birth defects have been prevented in about 1,300 babies each year. But some women still don’t get enough folate, while others may be overdoing it. About 10 percent of women may ingest more than the upper limit of 1,000 micrograms daily — about 2.5 times the recommended amount, a 2011 study found. Too much folate may increase a woman’s risk for certain cancers and interfere with some epilepsy drugs.

Folate fix

This graph shows trends in in number of babies born with neural tube defects — including spina bifida and anencephaly — from 1995 to 2011. The number of cases has decreased following knowledge of the role of folate in birth defects and the FDA’s requirement to put folic acid into enriched grain products.

Prevalence of brain and spinal cord birth defects before and after U.S. folic acid mandate, 1995-2011


J. Williams et al. Updated Estimates of Neural Tube Defects Prevented by Mandatory Folic Acid Fortification — United States, 1995–2011. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Vol. 64, January 16, 2015, p. 1.

I. B. Ahluwalia and K. L. Daniel. Are Women with Recent Live Births Aware of the Benefits of Folic Acid? Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Vol. 50, May 11, 2001, p. 3.

C. Hoyo et al. Folic acid supplementation before and during pregnancy in the Newborn Epigenetics STudy (NEST). BMC Public Health. Vol. 11, published online January 21, 2011, doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-11-46.

National Institutes of Health. Folate: Fact sheet for consumers. Updated April 20, 2016.

Further Reading

N. Seppa. Prenatal surgery may be preferable for spina bifida. Science News. Vol. 179, March 6, 2011, p. 12

J. Raloff. Women of childbearing age still aren’t getting enough folic acid. Science News Online, April 26, 2010.

J.L. Lee. Excess folic acid sits idle. Science News Online, August 24, 2009.

J. Raloff. Planting the seeds for folate enrichment. Science News Online, March 19, 2007.

J. Raloff. Folate enrichment pays baby dividends. Science News. Vol. 165, May 29, 2004, p. 349.

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