GAINESVILLE, Fla. — To help Hispanic women prevent having babies with neural-tube birth defects, the University of Florida has developed Spanish-language nutrition materials about the benefits of taking folic acid.
UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is preparing to release to the public Spanish-language materials that explain the role of folic acid in preventing neural-tube birth defects. Hispanic women have almost twice the risk of bearing children with neural-tube defects, and moreover, mothers of Hispanic origin account for almost 20 percent of live births in Florida.
Gail Kauwell, associate professor of human nutrition, said babies born with neural-tube defects can have a variety of health problems including breathing difficulties, walking and learning disabilities, and problems with bladder and bowel control. In some cases the brain does not develop, and the baby may be miscarried or die shortly after birth.Kauwell said taking folic acid daily can help prevent these problems.
“These are serious health issues that can be prevented almost 70 percent of the time by taking an inexpensive vitamin,” Kauwell said. “The fact that a woman can protect her unborn child simply by taking a folic acid supplement is remarkable, and that message needs to be conveyed to every female who can get pregnant.”
In 1992, the U.S. Public Health Service recommended that all women of childbearing age – including teenagers and Hispanic women — take 400 micrograms (0.4 milligrams) of folic acid daily.
The reasoning behind the daily intake recommendation is because the fetus can develop a neural-tube defect before a woman even realizes she is pregnant.
“The neural tube is formed within the first 28 days of pregnancy, so by the time a woman finds out she’s pregnant, it’s too late to use folic acid to prevent the defect,” Kauwell said. “Women must understand that they need to be taking folic acid at least one month before they conceive a child. The best way to ensure that happens is to take it every day during childbearing years.”
The evidence for a link between folic acid intake and a reduced risk of neural-tube defects is so strong that it is one of only 12 FDA-approved health claims for foods or dietary supplements.
However, scientists make a distinction between the two forms of the vitamin, known as folic acid and folate. Both are water-soluble B-vitamins, with folic acid being the synthetic form that is in vitamin supplements and fortified foods. The term for the natural form is folate, which is found in orange juice, strawberries, dark-green leafy vegetables, and beans, including black, kidney and garbanzo beans.
Kauwell said people should include both forms of the B-vitamin in their daily diet.
“Folic acid from a vitamin supplement is better absorbed, however, foods that are rich in folate have other vitamins and minerals that people should consume,” Kauwell said. “It should be noted though, that only synthetic folic acid has been shown in studies to reduce neural-tube defects.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, many women of childbearing age do not consume the recommended daily amount.
Although more research is needed to determine why Hispanic women are higher risk, scientists think it is a combination of genetic, cultural and environmental factors.
To ensure the folic acid message is accurately conveyed to the higher risk Hispanic women, Kauwell and her colleagues in UF’s food science and human nutrition department are conducting focus groups during May 2001.Working with her are: Lynn Bailey, professor, Linda Bobroff, associate professor, and Gail Rampersaud, registered dietitian.
Rampersaud said the focus groups should help ensure success in the Spanish community.
“We are inviting bilingual women of Cuban, Puerto Rican, Mexican and other Hispanic subgroups so we can get feedback about how the scientific information translates into various dialects of Spanish,” Rampersaud said. “Once it is distributed through our extension offices, this program should provide the opportunity for Hispanic women to empower themselves and reduce their risk.”