Government advice to women who want to get pregnant to boost their vitamin folate levels by eating more fresh vegetables and pulses to protect a developing foetus is misleading, according to new research.
Doctors in Northern Ireland say that only taking folic acid - the synthetic form of the vitamin - as a supplement, or in foods fortified with it, can produce blood levels of the vitamin which are likely to have a beneficial effect. Folate is essential for brain and spinal cord development in the foetus and there is a well-established link with folate deficiency and spina bifida and other neural tube defects (NTDs).
The new research shows that in women who increased their dietary intake, or who were given dietary advice only, blood concentrations of folate did not increase substantially. In women taking supplements or eating fortified foods, they did.
In tomorrow's issue of the Lancet, Dr Geraldine Cuskelly and colleagues from Ulster University, Coleraine, suggest that folic acid is better assimilated by the body than folate from foods such as broccoli, spinach, asparagus and brussels sprouts. The Folic Acid Campaign said women were advised to supplement their diets with 400mcg folic acid a day.