Congenital Heart Defects Can Be Prevented By Folic Acid-Fortified Food, New Study Finds

A new study published Monday showed linkages between the consumption of food fortified with folic acid and reduced rates of congenital heart defects.

Folic acid is a vitamin B used by the human body to perform numerous biological functions. It is necessary to ensure a steady supply of the vitamin through the foods people eat as it is water-soluble — the amounts not utilized leave the body through urine. The addition of the nutrients to food is referred to as food fortification or enrichment.

“Our study examined the effect of folic acid food fortification on each specific subtype of congenital heart disease based on the Canadian experience before and after food fortification was made mandatory in 1998,” K.S. Joseph, the study’s senior author and professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, said in a press release.

For the purpose of the study, researchers analyzed data from almost 6 million Canadian births between 1990 and 2011, finding that folic acid food fortification was linked to an 11 percent reduction in rates of congenital heart defects.

There was a 27 percent reduction in conotruncal defects (severe heart outflow tract abnormalities) and a 23 percent reduction in coarctation of the aorta (narrowing of the major artery). Atrial and ventricular septal defects saw a reduction of 15 percent.

On the other hand, the study found no changes in defects related to the number of chromosomes in an infant.

In the United States, an estimated 650,000 to 1.3 million children and adults live with congenital heart disease, with ventricular septal defects being the most common in children — accounting for nearly 620,000 cases.

Women who are likely to get pregnant are specifically advised to start taking folic acid supplements before getting pregnant as the folate from diet alone may not be adequate, Joseph explained. A deficiency of the vitamin can lead to a number of complications like neural tube defects and anemia as folic acid is important for rapid cell division and growth.

In a bid to prevent these defects, Canada made it essential to add folic acid to all types of flour, enriched pasta and cornmeal in 1998. The North American Fair Trade Agreement of 1994 led to similar fortification in the U.S., Joseph said.

The study was published Monday in American Heart Association’s journal Circulation.

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