March of Dimes and the National Council for Folic Acid (NCFA) will promote supplement use in an annual awareness campaign next week, focusing especially on Hispanic women who almost twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to give birth to children with birth defects.
"We have learned that Hispanic women consume the least amount of folic acid of any racial or ethnic group," Donna Gentry, program manager at the NCFA, told NutraIngredients-USA.com.
All cereal-based foods in the US have been fortified with the vitamin since 1998 under a law requiring mandatory fortification of flour, and this has led to a 26 percent reduction in birth defects.
But many staple foods such as corn-based products contain little folic acid and are not subject to the fortification rule.
"We want people to recognize that some products, including many corn-based foods, are not fortified, and make informed decisions about their diet," Gentry said.
Most neural tube defects, including spina bifida and anencephaly, occur within the first 22 to 28 days of pregnancy, when the mother-to-be is not aware she is even pregnant.
Folic acid supplements after this time are too late to prevent neural tube defects and therefore fail to benefit women with unplanned pregnancies - more than half of all pregnancies in the US.
Next week's campaign will include radio interviews, website articles, and newspaper stories. Consumer materials, in English and Spanish, have also been distributed nationwide in the US.
The campaign will also be welcomed by those who believe that eating fortified foods is not enough. In a recent issue of the journal Pediatrics (Sept. 2005, Vol. 116, pp.753-755) Robert Brent and Godfrey Oakley wrote that fortification levels need to be increased.
There are an estimated 2000 cases of birth defects every year in the US that could be prevented by increased folic acid intake, they claim.
Although the mechanism of folic acid protection is not known, it has been proposed to be due to its role in nucleic acid synthesis and/or the metabolism of homocysteine to methionine.