In the developed world, many food stuffs, especially flour and grain products, are fortified with folate and folic acid. Folic acid fortification has been going on since 1998 and its goal is to make sure that women consume enough folate during pregnancy. Deficiency of this essential vitamin can lead to birth defects, including the much-dreaded spina bifida.
“Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, which is a B vitamin that occurs naturally in leafy greens and other fruits and vegetables. It has been shown to significantly reduce the chance of neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, and helps produce and maintain healthy cells and is involved in numerous biological functions.”
Now, just over a decade later, there is a growing body of research that questions the benefits and risks of folic acid fortification. There have been indications, for example, that “long-term consumption of folate and folic acid may increase the risk of developing certain cancers in some people.”
In a recent study, Canadian researchers at the University of Toronto report that consumption of folic acid consumed during pregnancy can cause changes in gene function of the unborn offspring, changes which can potentially affect its susceptibility to certain diseases, including cancer.
The study is one of many in the relatively new field of epigenetics which looks at how certain genes and gene functions are “turned on” or “turned off” by environmental factors that include diet and lifestyle.
In some cases, genes that protect the body against certain types of cancer can be shut off, while genes that promote tumour formation can be turned on. Changes to genes can also trigger mutations, which explains why epigenetics has been gaining so much attention in the scientific community for its potential ability to help explain the mystery of disease risk.
Many health officials are concerned that the population is consuming excessive amounts of folic acid, leading to the abovementioned gene alternations. The effects of these alterations, however, are not clearly known.
The current study has been performed in rats and can’t conclusively say whether folic acid fortification has detrimental effects on human health, especially that of the unborn child. However several studies in humans have shown that folic acid supplementation does not lower risks for heart disease or cancer.
“…it’s becoming harder to ignore the growing debate about folic acid. Despite its clear benefits when taken by pregnant women, the move to fortify food with folic acid means a major portion of the population is consuming a higher level of the supplement than they would otherwise. Now, concern is growing that parts of the population that may be susceptible to colon cancer and other diseases could be put at greater risk due to their inadvertent exposure to folic acid.”
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