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Low Folate Levels Among Malaysian Women

8 February 2006

Study Finds Low Folate Levels Among Malaysian Women

A joint study by leading Malaysian and New Zealand nutrition researchers has found that Malaysian women of childbearing age are at risk of birth defects due to low folate intake in their diet.

Folate plays a crucial role in reducing the risk of neural tube defects (NTD) during pregnancies. Serious folate deficiency can lead to birth defects such as Spina Bifida, a form of NTD.

The joint study of 399 Malaysian women found that only 15.2 per cent of them had red cell folate concentrations at levels that would ensure a low risk of neural tube defects in babies.

The study, funded by Fonterra Brands, was conducted by independent researchers at Otago University in New Zealand and Universiti Putra Malaysia in Malaysia. Fonterra markets the pregnancy milk, ANMUM, which is fortified with folate and other nutrients to help aid the health of women and their unborn babies during pregnancy.

Fonterra Brands Health Platform Manager Joanne Todd said that two glasses a day of ANMUM was clinically proven to provide sufficient folate levels for pregnant women and their developing babies.

"ANMUM sales have been growing strongly in Malaysia. This reflects the growing awareness among Malaysian women of the importance of consuming folate and other nutrients during pregnancy.

"Malaysia is the biggest market globally for ANMUM, with sales increasing by 30 per cent over the past three years.

"There is overwhelming international evidence that consuming folic acid by women of childbearing age can reduce the occurrence of neural tube defects," Ms Todd said.

"However, there is a lack of data about folate intake and the blood folate status of Malaysian women, and we therefore funded this study so we can better understand the needs of this market."

Hospital-based reports estimated neural tube defects occurred at the rate of around 10 births per 10,000 in Malaysia. The incidence of neural tube defects in the United States is estimated to have reduced from 3.78 to 3.05 per 10,000 births after mandatory folic acid fortification.

Professor Geok Lin Khor, from the Department of Nutrition and Health Sciences at Universiti Putra Malaysia, said the Malaysian study found that the red blood cell (RBC) folate levels of Chinese and Indian women were not significantly different but both were significantly higher than that for Malays. "We believe that for the Chinese, it could be due to the frequent intake of fairly large portions of green leafy vegetables and related to the way meals are prepared.

"Folate is lost in prolonged cooking. The Chinese style of cooking usually entails quick stir-frying of leafy green vegetables and legumes, which are good folate sources. As for the Indians they normally consume relatively high amounts of lentils and chickpeas, and even though these legumes tend to be over-cooked, the folate content in cooked legumes remain quite high, according to food composition tables."

Professor Khor said the study would be published in the Asian Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition. In the meantime, the team was making the results available to health officials and medical professionals in Malaysia.

"Our study found a definite need to improve the consumption of folate and blood folate status of Malaysian women of childbearing age.

"A range of options are available to do this. For example, you can fortify selected foods with folic acid or you can encourage women capable of becoming pregnant to take folic acid supplements."

Ms Todd said a study in New Zealand in which women of childbearing age were given milk fortified with folic acid over 12 weeks raised their folate levels by 51 per cent. Their levels were well above the levels associated with the greatest reduction of NTD.

"As one of the world's leading nutritional milk companies we believe educating future mothers and raising their awareness of the need to take these steps gives their babies the best possible start in life."


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