Folic Acid: the Vitamin That Helps Prevent Birth Defects

Folic Acid is An Important Vitamin

Folic acid is a vitamin found in many foods and multivitamin supplements. It's especially important for women who could become pregnant because folic acid can help prevent birth defects.

Begin Each Day with Folic Acid

There are three ways women can get enough folic acid. They can choose to:

  • Take a vitamin supplement containing 400 micrograms of folic acid daily, or
  • Eat a fortified breakfast cereal daily which contains 100% of the recommended daily anount of folic acid (400 micrograms).
  • In addition, increase consumption of foods fortified with folic acid (e.g., "enriched" cereal, bread, rice, pasta and other grain products) in addition to consuming food folate from a varied diet (e.g., orange juice and green vegetables).

Folic Acid is Good for All Ages

No matter what your age, foods rich in folic acid are good for you.

Even young girls should try to get enough folic acid every day. That way, when you're older and planning to become a mother, folic acid will already be a part of your diet.

Folic Acid Can Help Prevent Birth Defects

All women need folic acid because it works best for you and your baby early in the first month of pregnancy, a time when you may not even know you're pregnant. Continued use of folic acid after the first month of pregnancy, and throughout your life, ensures the future good health of you and your family.

Folic acid can reduce certain birth defects of the brain and spinal cord by more than 70 percent. These birth defects are called neural tube defects (NTDs). NTDs happen when the spinal cord fails to close properly.

The most common neural tube defect is spina bifida. This occurs when part of the baby's spinal cord remains outside the body. The baby may have paralyzed legs and, later, may develop bladder and bowel control problems. The most serious neural tube defect is anencephaly. The baby is born without part of its skull and brain, and eventually dies.

Folic acid also may help lower your chances of getting heart disease and some types of cancers. It may help protect you from having a stroke, as well.

Who Needs Extra Folic Acid?

All women need folic acid, especially women who have had babies with NTDs and want to become pregnant again. If you have had a baby with an NTD, talk with your doctor before planning your next pregnancy. He or she may prescribe a vitamin that contains a higher dose (4 mg) of folic acid.

Getting Folic Acid from Vitamins

Taking a daily multivitamin that has 0.4 mg of folic acid is another way of getting the recommended amount.

However, avoid taking more than one multivitamin per day. Too much of the other vitamins, especially vitamin A, could cause serious health problems.

Don't be Confused by Labels

Read food and vitamin labels carefully to be sure you're getting enough folic acid. On the labels, folic acid is also called "folate." The amount of folic acid or folate in a vitamin or food may be given as either 400 micrograms or 0.4 mg. They are the same amounts.

Foods With Folic Acid

Enriched Breads and Grains

Breads and grains contain added folic acid.
Serving size is 1 piece.
All kinds of breads, rolls, muffins, tortillas, bagels, nan, pizza rust, waffles, pancakes. Serving size is 1/2 cup.
Rice, pasta, bulgur, barley, millet.
Wheat germ (2 tablespoons).

Fortified Cereals

Excellent sources.
Read the nutrition label on the cereal box to learn how much folic acid is provided. Many cereals, both hot and cold, generally provide 25% of the daily recommended amount of folic acid.

Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Web site for an extensive list of cereals that contain 100% of the daily value of folic acid and cereals that have been recently fortified with 100% of the daily value.

Fruits and Vegetables

Serving size is 1/2 cup unless otherwise noted.

  • Spinach, cooked
  • Asparagus
  • Turnip greens, cooked
  • Artichoke (1)
  • Collard greens, cooked
  • Orange juice
  • Mustard greens
  • Broccoli
  • Corn, fresh, frozen or canned
  • Orange (1)
  • Green peas, fresh, frozen or canned
  • Beets
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Parsnips
  • Okra, sliced

Serving size is one cup unless otherwise noted:

  • Spinach, raw
  • Iceberg lettuce (1/4 head)
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Raspberries, frozen
  • Turnip greens, raw
  • Celery
  • Pineapple juice, canned
  • Swiss chard, cooked
  • Sauerkraut
  • Cauliflower
  • Papaya
  • Bean sprouts
  • Green pepper
  • Blackberries
  • Tomato juice
  • Cantaloupe, casaba or honeydew melon
  • Winter squash, including acorn,
  • Hubbard, butternut;
  • Baked Green or wax beans
  • Italian green beans
  • Plantains
  • Strawberries
  • Cabbage, raw

Beans and Peas

They may be purchased dry, frozen or canned. Serving size is 1/2 cup unless otherwise noted.

  • Cranberry beans
  • Lentils
  • Pink beans
  • Adzuki beans
  • Black beans
  • Chickpeas (garbanzos)
  • Pigeon peas
  • Great Northern beans
  • Black-eyed peas or cowpeas
  • Navy beans/white beans
  • Pinto beans
  • Split peas
  • Kidney beans
  • Soybeans
  • Lima beans
  • Tofu, firm
  • Peanuts (1 ounce)
  • Peanut butter (2 tablespoons)

Protein Foods

  • Whole eggs (cooked), one egg
  • Liver

Convenience Foods

The following are good to very good sources of folic acid:

  • Instant Breakfast (powdered mix added to milk)
  • Bean with bacon soup (canned)
  • Chili with beans (canned)
  • Refried beans, canned or homemade
  • Pork and beans or baked beans (canned)
  • Spaghetti sauce (jar or canned)
  • Lentil soup (homemade or canned)
  • Black bean soup (canned)
  • Bean burrito
  • Frozen waffle (Nutri Grain or Eggo)

Menu Suggestions

Both menus contain 100% of the daily recommended amount of folic acid and provide adequate amounts of other nutrients important for women's health, including iron and calcium.

Sample One


  • 1 cup pineapple juice
  • 1 cup skim milk
  • 1 cup fortified ready-to-eat cereal
  • 1 slice whole wheat toast with 1 teaspoon heart healthy spread


  • 1 cup skim milk
  • Roast beef sandwich on whole wheat bread with tomato
  • 1 cup tossed salad made with Romaine lettuce, with dressing
  • 1 orange


  • 1 cup skim milk
  • Spaghetti with 1/2 cup sauce and meatballs
  • 1 cup Italian green beans
  • Bread sticks


  • Blackberry Cobbler

Sample Two


  • Frozen Eggo waffles (2) with syrup
  • 1 cup calcium fortified orange juice


  • 1/2 cup lactose-reduced skim milk
  • 1 cup chili with beans topped with one oz. grated, reduced-fat cheddar cheese
  • Sweet green and red pepper slices
  • Cornbread with heart healthy spread


  • 1 cup lactose-reduced skim milk
  • 3 oz. marinated broiled chicken
  • 1 ear corn on the cob with heart healthy spread
  • 1 cup steamed cauliflower and broccoli
  • Dinner roll with heart healthy spread


  • 1 cup pineapple/orange juice
  • Oatmeal cookies, 2 small

*This menu provides the recommended amount of folic acid for those who are lactose-intolerant.