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Folate, sometimes known as "folic acid" is one of the lesser known B vitamins getting a lot of attention in the news lately. It is reported to reduce the chance of birth defects, coronary heart disease and some types of cancer.

Its benefits are so high and consumption is so low that by 1998 many foods will be required by law to be fortified with folic acid.The current RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) is 180 micrograms - that's not milligrams, but micrograms (one millionth of a gram). However, more recent research suggests that this level should be raised to about 400 micrograms especially for women capable of becoming pregnant, says Dr. Georgia Lauritzen, nutrition specialist in the Utah State University College of Family Life.

Lauritzen says folate is important for people of all ages, but the most significant studies have linked folate deficiencies to spina bifida and anencephaly, two of the most common and severe birth defects. These defects can occur when the neural tube that develops into the spinal cord fails to close -18-26 days after conception. This is why folate is recommended for "women capable of becoming pregnant." A defect could occur before a woman knows she is pregnant.

By January 1998 food manufacturers will be required to fortify most grain products with folacin. Even then, these fortified products will only supply part of your daily need for folacin, so foods naturally high in folacin should still be an important part of your diet, Lauritzen says. Beans, peanuts, eggs and beef liver are high in folate, but for the most part it is found in fruits and vegetables. Fresh citrus and tomato juices tend to contain more folate than whole tomatoes, oranges and grapefruits because they are condensed.

The best sources of folate in fruit are: orange juice, oranges, grapefruit juice, tomato juice, grapefruit, strawberries and bananas.

The best vegetable sources are: raw spinach, cooked asparagus, cooked mustard greens, cooked turnip greens, cooked green peas and romaine lettuce.