Women of child-bearing age are urged to get an adequate daily amount of folic acid, a form of vitamin B. Health experts say it reduces the risk of birth defects. Yet not all pregnant women in the United Stated or worldwide are getting enough of this important vitamin.
Folic acid helps produce healthy new cells, which is especially important when many cells are dividing and growing, for example, during pregnancy.
So each January, Folic Acid Awareness Week is an opportunity to educate women about the importance of this vitamin.
"We're working this week to get women aware of their needs for folic acid and also offer these strategies for incorporating folic acid into their daily routines," says Adriane Griffen, spokeswoman for the National Council on Folic Acid.
Each year, about 3,000 babies are born with serious brain and spinal cord defects. Griffen says if all women took a daily dose of 400 milligrams of folic acid before conception and during pregnancy, 50 to 70 percent of these defects could be prevented.
"We recommend enriched foods, such as enriched grain products like rice, and foods that naturally contain folic acid, like dark-green, leafy vegetables," she says. "We also recommend taking multivitamin supplements that contain folic acid."
Other foods that contain folic acid are dried beans and peas, sunflower seeds and liver. Since 1998, the U.S. government has required food processors to fortify their cereal and grain products with folic acid. Griffen would like to see more of that.
"The National Council on Folic Acid does recommend other foods be fortified," she says. "For example, we know that Latinas in the United States actually consume the least amount of folic acid and have the least knowledge of folic acid among racial and ethnic groups in this country. So what we're hoping to do is increase fortification for some other stable food products, such as corn flour. We're working with our other partners now to try to see that that happens."
While folic acid is highly recommended for pregnant women, Griffen says it's important for everyone.
"Besides decreasing the risks of birth defects, emerging research also shows that folic acid may also offer protection against heart disease and things like Alzheimer's disease," she says. "So the National Council on Folic Acid is working hard this week to offer some simple strategies for people to incorporate folic acid into their New Year routines.
"So they can do things like incorporate a multivitamin into their day or add a cup of enriched rice to dinner tonight. One cup of cooked rice actually provides about a quarter of the daily value for folic acid that people need."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are working closely with the National Council on Folic Acid to raise awareness about this vitamin.
"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also worked with international partners as well as national partners to promote the importance of folic acid," says CDC spokeswoman Alina Flores. "So we're currently working to really try to reach as many women as possible, because the rates [of folic acid deficiency] are high around the world, as well as in the United States."
A year-round awareness campaign about the importance of folic acid targets health professionals and physicians in the United States and around the world, to make sure that women get the right advice when they see their heath care providers.