For women planning pregnancy and during the first 3 months of pregnancy, women are advised to take 400 micrograms of folic acid per day to reduce the risk of two serious birth defects, spina bifida and anencephaly (also called neural tube defects).
The neural tube closes and fuses very early in pregnancy, and often before a woman knows she is pregnant. If it doesn’t close, the result is a neural tube defects such as spina bifida. Folic acid is important during these early first weeks of life because folic acid taken at recommended levels for at least one month before and three months after conception can prevent most neural tube defects.
Folate, occurs naturally in foods like green leafy vegetables, but because many women do not eat enough and most pregnancies are not planned, many governments have mandated the addition of folic acid into flour used for bread making. As a result, commercial breads, muffins and pastries are all fortified with folate. In Australia, the folate fortification program has resulted in a 30% reduction in neural tube defects across the whole population, and up to a 70% reduction in groups who are at risk of having poor diets.