Pregnant women are advised to take folic acid tablets every day when trying to conceive and up until they are 12 weeks pregnant.
Folic acid prevent birth defects known as “neural tube defects”, including spina bifida and anencephaly, where the brain is not formed.
Women are advised to take a daily supplement of 400 micrograms of folic acid, from pharmacies, supermarkets, health food stores, or on prescription.
Almost half the pregnancies in the UK are unplanned, so even though women are advised to take folic acid supplements, they may start taking them too late.
Ministers are now urging the Government to approve fortification of flour with folic acid – which is a B vitamin - as it would increase the folic acid intake of women.
Lesley Gilchrist, independent midwife at Bespoke Birthing Midwifery Practice tells HuffPost UK folic acid in flour would be a good move: “I think this is a good idea because for unplanned pregnancies, women will not have much folic acid in their system.”
In 2015, researchers said more than 2,000 babies had suffered serious birth defects due to the Government’s “failure” to add folic acid to flour. A paper published in the same year said: “Europe has an epidemic of spina bifida and anencephaly (two types of neural tube defects) compared with countries with mandatory folic acid fortification policy.”
Other countries where food is fortified with folic acid are US, Canada and Australia.
Why folic acid?
Gilchrist says: “Folic acid protects against neural tube defects.
“We know that the neural tubes should close by the 28th day of pregnancy, which is six weeks along. So there’s the argument that if you’re not seeing your midwife before this and haven’t been advised to take folic acid, it’s almost pointless.”
Gilchrist explains this is why taking folic acid needs to be started months before so that for any possible conceptions, the folic acid will be in your system.
“This information needs to be given antenatally or forged into foods,” she adds. “What should be done is a public engagement about encouraging women who are planning to conceive to go and see their GP for an appointment and they can get checks and take it early on.”
What food should pregnant women eat containing folic acid?
The NHS advises pregnant women should eat food that contain folate, which is the natural form of folic acid.
“This includes green leafy vegetables, some breakfast cereals and some fat spreads such as margarine may have folic acid added to them,” the NHS states.
“It’s difficult to get the amount of folate recommended for pregnancy from food alone, which is why it is important to take a folic acid supplement.”
The British Dietetic Association (BDA) suggests good sources of folic acid include: “spinach, kale, brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, beans and legumes (e.g. peas), yeast and beef extracts, oranges, wheat bran and other whole grain foods, poultry, pork, shellfish and liver.
They also noted that as folic acid is a water-soluble vitamin (dissolves easily in water), it is lost from vegetables during cooking: “This can be reduced by avoiding over-cooking and and steaming or microwaving vegetables instead of boiling.”
When should women stop taking folic acid?
Women are advised to take supplements up until the 12th week of pregnancy, but Gilchrist says it can be useful throughout the whole nine months.
“Folic acid helps you to absorb iron from food in your diet and boosts your iron levels,” she says.
“I advise women to take it all the way through pregnancy.”