Two new studies have shown that folic acid may give even more protection than currently thought. As well as protecting against spina bifida and other related neural tube defects, it may also help prevent premature birth and heart defects.
In the first study, conducted in Texas, researchers discovered that women taking folic acid for at least a year before becoming pregnant cut their risk of having a premature baby in half. Nearly 35,000 pregnancies were reviewed as part of the study.
In the second study, in Canada, 1.3 million pregnancies since 1990 were analysed for heart defects. They discovered that incidences of heart defects fell by 6 per cent each year since Canada introduced a programme of fortifying food with folic acid in 1998.
Folic acid is an artificial form of folate, a B vitamin. The body is unable to store up enough of it and so pregnant women and women trying to conceive are encouraged to take folic acid supplements and eat a diet high in natural folates.
But with around half of all pregnancies being unplanned, the European Union and UK medical professionals and government health departments are reviewing whether to start a planned food fortification programme here too, to ensure adults of child-rearing age consume enough folate.
Good fruits for a folate-rich diet include raw raspberries, satsumas, oranges, grapefruit and avocado.
Good vegetables include asparagus (raw), brussel sprouts, spinach, cabbage, spring greens, broccoli, green beans and lettuce.
In the UK, some breakfast cereals, breads and low fat spreads have been fortified with extra folic acid.