Folic acid: what you need to know

January 10, 2019

It’s Folic Acid Awareness Week – a great time to learn all about why folic acid is so important! Below we break down all you need to know.

What is folic acid?

Folic acid is a B vitamin that helps your cells grow. It plays an important role in helping make red blood cells, which carry oxygen from your lungs to all parts of your body.

How can folic acid help your baby?

During early pregnancy, folic acid helps prevent birth defects of the brain and spine, called neural tube defects (also called NTDs). The neural tube is the part of a developing baby that becomes the brain and spinal cord. Because NTDs happen in the first month of pregnancy, before you may know that you’re pregnant, it’s important to have enough folic acid in your body before you get pregnant. Even if you’re not trying to get pregnant, take a vitamin supplement with 400 micrograms (also called mcg) of folic acid every day.

Can you get folic acid anywhere else?

Many foods have folic acid added to them. You may have seen the words “fortified” or “enriched” on packages of flour, bread, cereal and pasta. These food have folic acid added to them. Folic acid can also be found in products made from a kind of flour called corn masa. Corn masa flour is made from specially treated corn and used to make products common in Latin American foods, such as corn tortillas and tamales. Not all products made with corn masa contain folic acid, so be sure to read the product label.

Although you can get folic acid in its natural form (folate) in some fruits and vegetables, the bottom line is that it’s hard to get all the folic acid you need from food. That’s why taking a vitamin supplement each day is so important.

What if you’re already pregnant?

During pregnancy you need extra folic acid to help your baby grow and develop. Most pregnant women need to take a prenatal vitamin with 600 mcg of folic acid. Talk with your prenatal care provider to see if this is the right amount of folic acid for you.

What else should you know?

NTDs affect about 3,000 pregnancies each year in the United States. Hispanic women have a 21 percent higher risk of a pregnancy with an NTD than non-Hispanics women.

Because nearly half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, all women who can get pregnant should take folic acid every day. According to experts, if all women take 400 mcg of folic acid every day before getting pregnant and during early pregnancy, it may help prevent up to 7 in 10 (70 percent) of NTDs.