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Folic Acid May Help Prevent Some Childhood Cancers

Folic Acid May Help Prevent Some Childhood Cancers 
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Grain products fortified with folic acid may also be helping to decrease some types of childhood cancer

A study in Pediatrics suggests that pregnant women who eat grain products fortified with folic acid may also be helping to decrease some types of childhood cancer. Nutrients such as folic acid and other vitamins are commonly added to products we buy at the store such as bread and cereal—a process referred to as fortification.

To explore whether kids born to women exposed to folic acid–fortified food sources have lower cancer risk, researchers looked at the incidence of childhood cancers in kids up to four years old during the time period before food was fortified with folic acid and after 1996 when the US Food and Drug Administration required that all enriched grain products be fortified with folic acid.

Results showed that the rates of certain types of childhood cancers did, in fact, decrease after folic acid was added to foods, including the rates of Wilms tumors, which affect the kidney; primitive neuroectodermal tumors that affect the nervous system; and ependymomas, which affect the brain or spinal cord. The incidence of most childhood cancers, however, did not change.

The authors caution that, in regards to their study, “it is difficult to draw firm conclusions regarding the isolated effects of folic acid [fortification of food] because other temporal trends were occurring during the study period,” such as an increasing trend of women taking folic acid supplements.

Folic acid facts

  • Folic acid in our food. Health benefits that have been reported and attributed to fortification including a reduction in brain and spinal cord defects such as spina bifida in children.
  • Folic acid's role in cancer. It is not entirely known how fortification of foods with folic acid may help prevent childhood cancers. More research is needed to understand what types and amounts of vitamins and minerals are optimal for a woman to take while she is pregnant in order to help prevent disease in her children.
  • Prenatal folic acid. If you are pregnant, talk with a knowledgeable doctor about the role of prenatal vitamins, your nutritional requirements, and the benefits and risks of supplementation.

(Pediatrics 2012;129:1125 DOI 10.1542/peds.2011–3418)

Jane Hart, MD, board-certified in internal medicine, serves in a variety of professional roles including consultant, journalist, and educator. Dr. Hart, a Clinical Instructor at Case Medical School in Cleveland, Ohio, writes extensively about health and wellness and a variety of other topics for nationally recognized organizations, websites, and print publications. Sought out for her expertise in the areas of integrative and preventive medicine, she is frequently quoted by national and local media. Dr. Hart is a professional lecturer for healthcare professionals, consumers, and youth and is a regular corporate speaker.