Food fortified with folic acid has been shown to lower overall rates of congenital heart defects.

Food fortified with folic acid, a B vitamin required in human diets for numerous biological functions, is associated with reduced rates of congenital heart defects, according to research in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation.

Controlling for influences such as maternal age, multiple births (twins, triplets), pregnancy complications, prenatal diagnosis and pregnancy terminations, researchers from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada analysed data from nearly 6 million Canadian births from 1990 to 2011 and found that folic acid food fortification was associated with an 11 percent reduction in rates of congenital heart defects overall.

Canada mandated adding folic acid to all types of flour, enriched pasta and cornmeal, primarily aimed at preventing neural tube defects in 1998. Folic acid is especially important for rapid cell division and growth, for instance, when blood is being formed and in pregnancy when the foetus is growing rapidly. Folate deficiency can result in several different complications – the most important of these are neural tube defects (such as spina bifida, an abnormality of the spine and spinal cord) in babies and anaemia (in which the number and function of red blood cells is affected leading to an inability of the blood to carry sufficient oxygen).

The researchers added that women who are likely to get pregnant should start taking folic acid supplements before getting pregnant as they may not necessarily receive adequate folate from diet alone.