A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine has confirmed the wisdom of fortifying cereal foods with folic acid.
The extensive study which was carried out by Philippe De Wals and team from Laval University in Quebec found that the rate of major defects in newborns like spinal bifida and anencephaly fell from 0.158 percent before folic acid fortification became mandatory in 1998, to 0.086 percent afterward.
The scientists were reported: "Marked reductions in rates of neural-tube defects have occurred across Canada after fortification of food with folic acid was implemented."
Adding folic acid to food has been shown to prevent neural tube defects, which occur when the neural tube, which later turns into the brain and spine, fails to form properly in the womb. This takes place within the first weeks of a pregnancy, often before a woman knows she is pregnant.
Spina bifida and anencephaly are the two most common neural tube defects.
The provinces where the rates of neural tube defects were highest before fortification took effect, showed the biggest decline in neural tube defects once the cereals were treated with the B vitamin.
Researchers collected data on almost two million pregnancies from hospitals in seven provinces to observe changing rates of neural-tube defects between 1993 and 2002. A total of 2,446 subjects with such defects were recorded among 1.9 million births.
Researchers discovered a 46 per cent overall reduction, and a 53 per cent reduction in spina bifida cases specifically. The decline in prevalence was most noticeable in the Atlantic Provinces, where neural-tube defects were historically highest.
"After full implementation, geographical differences in rates almost disappeared," the researchers were quoted.
Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, also called vitamin B-9, which is found in citrus fruits, nuts, liver and dark green, leafy vegetables. It creates healthy new cells that help form a baby's brain, spine, organs, skin and bones.
Medical authorities began campaigns in the 1990s to tell women of childbearing age to take folic acid supplements, and in 1998 the Canadian government ordered grain products such as flour, breakfast cereals and pasta to be fortified with the synthetic form of folate.