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The Importance of Folic Acid

Even though every enriched grain product, from cereal to pita bread, now includes folic acid -- a crucial vitamin that prevents birth defects of the brain and spine -- a new study found that many women are still not getting enough. Why? A woman must consume adequate folate (the naturally occurring form in food) or folic acid during the first weeks of pregnancy -- before she knows she's going to have a baby.

The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that only 40 percent of Caucasian women get enough folic acid. The numbers are even lower -- 19 and 21 percent -- for African-Americans and Hispanics. "Most nonpregnant women consume less than the recommended 400 micrograms a day," says Heather Carter Hamner, nutrition epidemiologist with the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. Since 49 percent of pregnancies are unplanned, doctors recommend that all women of childbearing age pop a daily multivitamin containing folic acid.