More benefits from folate

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Fortifying flour and pasta with folic acid has led to a significant drop in congenital heart defects in Canada, researchers said today. Scientists already knew that folic acid supplements can sharply reduce the incidence of neural tube defects in newborns, and research presented Monday showed that long-term use of the supplements can reduce the risk of extremely premature births. Based on animal studies, researchers had also suspected that folate could reduce heart defects, but the new study is the first to demonstrate it.

Dr. Louise Pilote of McGill University in Montreal and her colleagues studied all births in Quebec between 1990 and 2005. Among the 1,324,440 births during this period, there were 2,083 infants born with severe congenital heart defects.

The researchers reported in the online version of the British Medical Journal that, during the 1990s, the incidence of such defects rose slightly each year, averaging about 1.57 cases per 1,000 births. After the introduction of fortification with folate in January 1999, however, the rate fell by an average of 6% per year, declining to about 1.1 cases per 1,000 births in 2005.

Most women, unfortunately, do not get enough folate in their diet even with fortification. American health authorities therefore recommend that all women of child-bearing age take supplements containing 400 micrograms of folate each day. In the rest of the world, meanwhile, only 66 countries have fortification --and only 47 of them by mandate. Among those who don’t are Britain and most countries in Europe.


-- Thomas H. Maugh II