Folic acid is not only a safeguard against spina bifida and other birth defects in babies - it can also prevent heart disease and strokes, two of Northern Ireland's biggest killers, according to research from the University of Ulster released this week.
Researchers at the University claim that folic acid and three other related B-vitamins can prevent the accumulation of a high blood level of homocysteine, a risk factor in heart disease and strokes.
The risk of high homocysteine is similar to the risk of high cholesterol but, the scientists claim, it is much easier to lower the level through increased intake of folic acid. According to the researchers Vitamin B-12 and Vitamin B-6 can prevent a build up of homcysteine, helping to protect against heart disease or strokes.
Professor Helene McNulty, Professor of Nutritional Science at the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Ulster, said: "As the folic acid story unfolds it is becoming clear that its importance goes beyond its major role for mothers-to-be and that, in fact, it is not just a woman's nutrient.
"New and emerging roles for this important vitamin include its probable role in protecting against heart disease and strokes by preventing the accumulation of homocysteine."
Professor McNulty's research confirmed that a fourth B-vitamin - riboflavin - can also play an important role in protecting against heart disease and strokes.
Around 12 per cent of people have a particular genetic make-up which predisposes them to high homocysteine levels. Riboflavin, which is found in dairy foods like milk and yoghurt, prevents the build up of homcysteine in people with this genetic make-up.
Professor McNulty said: "The evidence appears to suggest that if riboflavin intake is good the genetic predisposition towards elevated homocysteine may be overcome. This is a classic example of what scientists call a gene-nutrient interaction.
"To protect against elevated homocysteine in all individuals, including those with the genetic predisposition, a good intake of all four B-vitamins is recommended."
Further information about the study can be obtained from David Young at the University of Ulster:firstname.lastname@example.org.