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How Folate Can Help Prevent Birth Defects

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Finding Foods with Folate

Certain information on food and dietary supplement labels can help women spot foods containing sustantial amounts of folate. Some labels may claim that the product is "high in folate or folic acid," which means a serving of the food provides 20 percent or more of the Daily Value for folic acid. Or the label may say the food is a "good source" of folate, which means a serving of the food provides 10 to 19 percent of the Daily Value for folic acid. The exact amount will be given in the labels Nutrition Facts panel.

Some food and dietary supplement labels may carry a longer claim that says adequate folate intake may reduce the risk of neural tube birth defects. Products carrying this claim must:

  • provide 10 percent or more of the Daily Value for folic acid per serving

  • not contain more than 100 percent of the Daily Value for vitamins A and D per serving because high intakes of these vitamins are associated with other birth defects

  • carry a caution on the label about excess folic acid intake, if a serving of food provides more than 100 percent of the Daily Value for folic acid. FDA has set 1 mg (or 1,000 micrograms) of folate daily as the maximum safe level. There are limited data on the safety of consuming more than 1mg daily, and there may be a risk for people with low amounts of vitamin B in their bodies--for example, older people with malabsorption problems, and people on certain anticancer drugs or drugs for epilepsy whose effectiveness can diminish when taken with high intakes of folate.

  • list on the labels Nutrition or Supplement Facts panel the amount by weight in micrograms and the % Daily Value of folate per serving of the product. This information, which appears toward the bottom of the panel, along with the listing of other vitamins and minerals, can be used to compare folate levels in various foods and supplements.

Optional information may appear with the health claim to let consumers know about other risks associated with neural tube birth defects, when to consult a doctor, other foods that are good sources of folate, and other important messages about neural tube defects.

Other Considerations

The claim about folate cannot imply that adequate folate intake alone will ensure a healthy baby, since so many factors can affect a pregnancy. Women should bear this in mind when contemplating pregnancy, advises Jeanne Latham, a registered dietician and consumer safety officer in FDA's Office of Special Nutritionals. "Folate can make a significant contribution," she said, "many factors, including an overall good diet, are involved in having a healthy baby."

Genetics play a role, as do other healthful prenatal practices, such as eating an all-around good diet. But unlike genetics, diet is a risk factor women can modify to their--and their baby's--advantage, said Jeanne Rader, Ph.D., director of the division of science and applied technology in FDA's Office of Food Labeling.

"Folic acid is one of many nutrients needed in a healthy diet for women of childbearing age," she said. "A well-balanced diet with a variety of foods can provide all those nutrients, including adequate amounts of folate."

Women have options fo reaching the folate intake goal: They can get the necessary nutrients and calories both before and during pregnancy by eating a well-balanced diet, keeping in mind folate-rich foods, nutrition experts say. Folic acid-fortified grain products, including breakfast cereals, will help, too. Dietary supplements are another source of folate. Any one or a combination of these options for ensuring adequate folate can help assure women of childbearing age that, if they become pregnant, their babies will be off to a healthy start.

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