TUESDAY, May 12, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Since the mandatory addition of folic acid to flour, pasta and other grain products took effect in Canada more than a decade ago, fewer babies have been born with congenital heart defects, researchers report.
Folic acid, a type of vitamin B, has been shown to reduce neural tube birth defects, such as spina bifida or anencephaly. Now it seems folic acid may also prevent heart defects.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration in 1996 required that folic acid be added to enriched breads, cereals, flours, corn meals, pastas, rice and other grain products. By 2004, the number of infants born with spina bifida or anencephaly had dropped 26 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Quebec, flour and pasta have been fortified with folic acid since 1998. In this study, a team at McGill University in Montreal collected data on 1.3 million births in Quebec from 1990 to 2005. During that period 2,083 children were born with heart defects, an average of 1.57 for every 1,000 births.
There was no change in the prevalence of heart defects during the nine years before mandated supplementation started, but the researchers found a 6 percent decrease in heart defects each year after folic acid was added to grain products.
"Our study offers new evidence regarding the benefits of the mandatory fortification policy, which is important both for the countries that are currently considering starting such a policy and for the countries that have already implemented it and are currently monitoring and evaluating its implementation," said lead researcher Raluca Ionescu-Ittu, a doctoral candidate at McGill.
The report is published in the May 11 online edition of the British Medical Journal.
Other studies have also looked at the benefit of folic acid in reducing congenital heart defects, said Dr. Diane M. Ashton, deputy medical director of the March of Dimes.
These heart defects are rare, but when they occur, they are severe and costly, she said. "If you can reduce such a significant abnormality by doing something as simple as a public health intervention by increasing folic acid in the grain supply and encouraging individuals to take folic acid supplementation, it's a win-win situation," she said.
In another study reported this year, folic acid intake was shown to reduce the likelihood of premature birth.
Despite a Canadian awareness campaign launched in 2002, many mothers still do not take folic acid supplements before becoming pregnant, the Quebec study noted. "Women at conceptual age should be aware of the preventive effects of folic acid and take it before becoming pregnant," Ionescu-Ittu said.
For more information on folic acid and pregnancy, visit the March of Dimes.