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Benefits of Folic Acid in Pregnancy outlined at Dairy Council Nutrition Lecture

29 November 2013

The role of folic acid during pregnancy and the prospect of adverse pregnancy outcomes linked to inadequate folate nutrition were in focus this week at the annual Dairy Council nutrition lecture.

An initiative of The Dairy Council for Northern Ireland, in association with the University of Ulster’s Northern Ireland Centre for Food and Health (NICHE), the lecture – ‘Facing the Future with Folic Acid Fortification: A Legacy beyond Neural Tube Defects’ – was delivered by Anne Molloy, Associate Professor in the Department of Clinical Medicine and Director of the Vitamin Research Laboratory, Trinity College Dublin.

Professor Molloy explained: “Voluntary fortification with folic acid in the UK and Ireland has resulted in a considerable improvement in the general folate status of the population – but the evidence of benefit in prevention of neural tube defects is less clear, partly due to the absence of appropriate monitoring.

“More importantly, despite 20 years of research, we still do not know precisely how folic acid prevents neural tube defects or what concentration of serum folate would provide adequate protection for a woman entering pregnancy. Beyond neural tube defects, folic acid and related B-vitamins clearly have a role in embryogenesis, in foetal programming and in ensuring optimal health in the first 1,000 days of life.”

Leading Ulster nutritionist, Sean Strain, Professor of Human Nutrition and Director of the Northern Ireland Centre for Food and Health (NICHE), said: “Alongside my colleagues, Professor Mary Ward and Professor Helene McNulty, it has been an honour for us to collaborate with Anne and the team at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) for more than 20 years on a wide range of publications and research projects. Her work has focused on the biochemistry of folate and vitamin B12 and the relationship between these micronutrients and risk of disease – from birth defects to chronic disease in the elderly.

“The finding that folic acid could prevent many neural tube defects ranks as one of the most important discoveries in birth defects research. Anne’s lecture will review the current state of knowledge in this area and highlight new directions in seeking to address the challenges we still face.”

Given the discovery that folic acid could prevent manyneural tube defects, countries such as the US and Canada have introduced mandatory folic acid fortification of foods and the rates of these debilitating and often lethal birth defects have fallen substantially.

The University will continue to collaborate with Professor Molloy’s team at TCD. Professor Strain added: “There are many synergies between Anne’s work and our own work in folate and other B vitamins, which is led at Ulster by my colleague, Professor Helene McNulty. We will continue to work in partnership so that collectively, our work influences global nutrition policies for women of child-bearing age and for older people.”

Professor Mike Johnston, Chief Executive of the Dairy Council, said: "We are delighted to support the annual nutrition lecture which represents a long-standing relationship between the Dairy Council and the University. The inaugural lecture was in 1991 and over the years the event has provided opportunities to access some of the leading international researchers in the field of human nutrition."


Human nutrition research at the University of Ulster is conducted in the Northern Ireland Centre for Food and Health (NICHE), a centre of excellence officially set up with EU structural funds in 1996 to provide greater understanding of diet-related health issues.

Nutrition research has formed a significant part of the University’s Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) submission in Biomedical Sciences since 1989. NICHE has been ranked 1st in the UK in the RAE of 1996 and 2001, and in the last RAE in 2008 NICHE was ranked 1st in research power. NICHE has 27 academic, 4 technical and 15 research staff, as well as over 20 postgraduate research students.

The aim of NICHE is to understand diet related health issues by performing fundamental research in nutrition and investigating the relationship between diet and chronic disease.

Caption: Professor Sean Strain; Professor Richard Barnett, Vice-Chancellor; Professor Anne Molloy; Harry O'Neill, Chairman, Dairy Council for Northern Ireland; Professor Mike Johnston, Chief Executive, Dairy Council for Northern Ireland; Dr Carole Lowis, Director, Food and HealthCommunications; and Professor Carol Curran, Dean, Faculty of Life and Health Sciences