Folic Acid

What is folate or folic acid?

Folate is a B-group vitamin that is essential for good health, and is naturally present in many foods.  A form of folate, called folic acid, is used in dietary supplements and added to foods to enrich them.  These are known as fortified foods.

Why is folate important?

Our bodies need folate to make DNA and other genetic material.  Folate is also needed for the body’s cells to divide.  It is especially important in unborn babies because it helps the nervous system develop.  In the very first weeks of pregnancy, the neural tube closes and fuses.  The neural tube later becomes the baby’s brain and spinal cord.

What is a neural tube defect?

A neural tube defect, also known as a NTD, is more likely if mothers don’t have enough folate in their bodies before getting pregnant and during the early weeks of pregnancy.  Spina bifida is one type of neural tube defect.  Taking extra folic acid as a supplement before getting pregnant and through the early weeks of pregnancy may reduce the chance of a baby developing a NTD.  Not all cases of NTDs can be prevented, but taking folic acid is very helpful for most pregnancies.

Who needs folic acid?

Folate cannot be stored in the body, so you need it in your diet every day.  Women need 400 micrograms of folate a day.  Women and teenagers who might become pregnant within the next year need an extra 400 micrograms of folic acid as a supplement (tablet) every day, as well as eating a healthy diet.

Many women do not see folic acid as relevant because they are not planning a pregnancy, but research shows that half of pregnancies are unplanned.  Therefore, the HSE urges all women who could become pregnant to take a daily supplement, whether or not they intend to become pregnant.  Research shows that women do not get enough folic acid from their food, therefore taking a folic acid supplement daily is the best way to reduce the risk of having a baby with a Neural Tube Defect (NTD) like Spina Bifida.

Read more information on folic acid on the safefood website