More U.S. women are taking daily supplements of folic acid, a B vitamin crucial to prevent some major birth defects, but the number remains too low, federal health officials said on Thursday.
Forty percent of women ages 18 to 45 said in a survey last year that they took the supplements each day, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a report.
That compares to 28 percent in 1995, the CDC said.
“A lot of women are not getting enough folic acid,” said CDC epidemiologist Heather Hamner, who worked on the report.
CDC researchers were most concerned about women ages 18 to 24. They had the lowest reported daily use of supplements containing folic acid, at 30 percent, and also had the least awareness of the need for folic acid, the CDC said.
“These women have the highest rate of unintended pregnancies and comprise about a third of all births in the U.S. So it’s really important that we target our efforts to this age group,” Hamner said in a telephone interview.
The CDC analyzed a 2007 survey by the Gallup Organization in which 2,003 women 18 to 45 years were questioned about folic acid.
The rate had reached 40 percent in 2004 before falling to 33 percent in 2005. Figures for 2006 do not exist.
Prevents birth defects
Folic acid helps the body make healthy new cells. It is important that women get enough of it before and during a pregnancy to prevent major birth defects involving a baby’s brain or spine.
In 1992, U.S. government health experts recommended that all women of childbearing age consume 400 micrograms of folic acid daily to reduce their risk of having a pregnancy affected by birth defects called neural tube defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly.
The Food and Drug Administration in 1998 ordered folic acid to be added to cereal grain products, which led to a 26 percent drop in the neural tube defect rate in the following years.
Hamner said even with that fortification, women are not getting enough. She said other research has shown that U.S. women of childbearing age average about 130 micrograms of folic acid daily, far below the recommended level.
Leafy green vegetables, fruits, dried beans peas and nuts are some foods containing folic acid. Enriched breads, cereals and other grain products also contain it. Folic acid can be taken as a dietary supplement, for example in a multivitamin.
The CDC also reported that fortification of wheat flour with folic acid and iron was rising globally.
It said worldwide wheat flour fortification increased from 18 percent in 2004 to 27 percent in 2007. But the CDC said about two-thirds of the world population still lacks access to fortified wheat flour.