Folic acid is a B vitamin that is essential for the healthy development of a baby’s spine, brain, and skull. If taken prior to conception, it can reduce the risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect (NTDs), by as much as 70 percent. To be effective, folic acid must be taken prior to conception because neural tube defects occur in the first four weeks of pregnancy – before most women even know they are pregnant. And, since many pregnancies are unplanned, it is important for all women who could become pregnant to take a daily multivitamin containing a minimum of 0.4 mg of folic acid and to eat foods high in folic acid.
“The information on folic acid and its benefits is not new,” says Anne Pastuszak, spokesperson for the Alliance and former Director of The Fetal Center at the Hospital for Sick Children. “In fact, the issue has been around for 12 years now.”
So, why don’t more women know about folic acid? A recent Ipsos-Reid survey conducted among Ontario women between the ages of 18 and 40 years old, on behalf of The Folic Acid Alliance of Ontario (FAAO), found that while 80 percent of women have heard of folic acid, only 38 percent of women understand that folic acid must be taken before conception to help reduce the risk of NTDs. In fact, 41 percent of women had not heard of neural tube defects and only 42 percent understand that folic acid may reduce the risk of having a baby born with NTDs like spina bifida.
One in 1,300 total births in Canada are affected by a neural tube defect. Women can reduce their risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect, by taking folic acid before getting pregnant.
All women who could become pregnant should be taking a daily multivitamin containing a minimum of 0.4 mg of folic acid. However, more than half of Ontario women between the ages of 18 and 40 years old do not take a daily multi-vitamin. Of the 43 percent who do take a multivitamin, only 76 percent take a multivitamin containing folic acid. In fact, 58 percent of women don’t know how much folic acid they should consume daily. Women should also eat foods high in folic acid such as broccoli, spinach, orange juice, and sunflower seeds, as well as foods fortified with folic acid, such as white flour, cereals, and pasta.
Founding members of the Folic Acid Alliance of Ontario include The Easter Seal Society of Ontario, The Fetal Centre at The Hospital for Sick Children, The Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Association of Ontario, Best Start: Ontario’s Maternal, Newborn and Early Child Development Resource Centre and The Ontario Society of Nutrition Professionals in Public Health. The member organizations came together in 1996 because they shared an interest in promoting the benefits of folic acid in preventing neural tube defects.