Published on 10/13/97

New Laws Aim to Lower Birth Defects

Each year more than 2,500 babies born in the United States have neural tube defects such as spina bifida or anencephaly. New laws have put a solution in your grocery store.

Flour will now be enriched with folate, a neural defect preventative.

"This is the first major change in food fortification in over 50 years," said Gail Hanula, a nutrition and health specialist with the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service.

According to the March of Dimes, the neural tube is the embryonic structure that becomes the brain and spine. Every unborn baby's spine is open when it first forms. But it normally closes by the 29th day after conception

In spina bifida, the backbone never closes completely. In anencephaly, the cranium and brain never form.

To prevent these defects, many flours are now enriched with folate, also known as folic acid. But they may not say so on the label.

"Flour millers arranged with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to begin adding it, without it being on the label, until the labels they have on hand run out," Hanula said. "But by Jan. 1 the new labels have to be in place."

Doctors have long advised pregnant women to take a folic acid supplement because the B-vitamin plays an important role in the neural tube development. The problem is, by the time a woman knows she's pregnant, it could be too late.

"The neural tube develops in the first trimester," Hanula said. "Many women don't know they're pregnant that early and aren't taking the supplement."

The risk can be lessened by putting the supplement in flour and encouraging all women of childbearing years to eat more grain and bread products. About 90 percent of childbearing-age women already eat grain products daily.

Folic acid is naturally in many foods. Most greens, such as broccoli, asparagus and collard greens, contain it. So do cooked dried beans, eggs and liver.

"The No. 1 source of folic acid in the average American diet is orange juice," Hanula said. "Also, some breakfast cereals on the market now contain 100 percent of the recommended daily allowance of folic acid. And others contain a portion of the requirement.

"If you eat a fortified breakfast cereal with a glass of orange juice, you've gone a long way toward meeting your recommended daily allowance," she said.

Millers and bakers can label folate as an ingredient in their products. If the flour or breads have more than 10 percent of the RDI for folate (40 micrograms) per serving, they can also point out the reduced risk of neural tube defects associated with folate.

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.