Food fortified with folic acid is associated with a reduced prevalence of birth heart defects, reports a recent study.

Folic acid or folate, commonly referred to as vitamin B9, is essential for various biological functions of the human body. The water-soluble vitamin is now observed to lower the risk of congenital heart defects.

According to the study published on Tuesday, Aug. 30 in American Heart Association's journal Circulation, food fortified with folic acid helps in reducing different types of congenital heart disease. Since folic acid is soluble in water it is usually expelled in urine if not utilized by the body, which necessitates a constant supply of the vitamin in the diet.

In November 1998, the Canadian government mandated that cornmeal, pasta and all varieties of flour be enriched with folic acid, primarily to reduce the prevalence of neural tube defects. The fortification was also associated with a reduction in the incidence of severe congenital heart defects, but not of the less severe types. This is what the new study aimed to address.

"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," Dr. K.S. Joseph, senior author of the study and professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, said in a press release.

For the study, researchers analyzed data involving 6 million births between 1990 and 2011 in Canada. Based on the results, the researchers noted an association between the 11 percent decrease in the overall birth heart defect rates with the onset of food fortification with folic acid. Though not all the congenital heart disease subtype rates were reduced, a number of defects showed a significant decline.

A 23 percent decrease in coarctation (narrowing) of the aorta was observed. Severe heart outflow tract abnormalities called conotruncal defects were found to have declined by 27 percent. A 15 percent reduction in defects related to the atrial and ventricular septum was also noted. However, no difference in heart defects associated with chromosomes could be observed.

Folic acid is necessary for cell division and it is essential for the growth and development of the fetus. Aside from neural tube defects, a deficiency in folic acid can result in anemia.

Joseph noted that women planning for pregnancy should consider taking folic acid supplements as diet alone may not be sufficient to supply the required amount of folate.

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