Birth defects affect about one in every 33 babies and are the leading cause of death among newborns. Common birth defects include cleft palate, cleft lip, deformed limbs, and spina bifida, which is a serious birth defect in which the bones around the spinal cord do not form properly. Fortunately, the rate of birth defects in the United States has plummeted by 32 percent in the last decade according to a press release issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson called the reduction in birth defects exciting, adding that the decrease "is evidence of the need to educate women of childbearing age about the importance of folic acid to the health of their future children." The CDC attributes much of this decrease to the 10-year campaign, known as the Public Health Service Folic Acid recommendation, which encourages women to increase their intake of folic acid before becoming pregnant. In response, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration mandated the addition of folic acid to all enriched cereal grain products by 1998.

Experts recommend women take 400 micrograms of folic acid, a B vitamin, every day. Having enough folic acid in a woman's body for one month before the start of pregnancy and throughout the entire term greatly reduces the risk of major defects affecting the baby's spine and brain. Women can now eat a bowl of breakfast cereal each morning to get all the folic acid their bodies need to reduce birth defects, as long as the cereal contains 100 percent of the recommended daily value for folic acid.

Spina bifida and some other types of birth defects are due to defects in the embryo's neural tube, which is the precursor to the baby's nervous system. These neural tube defects affect the baby's brain, spine or spinal cord. While medical researchers are not exactly certain how folic acid reduces neural tube defects, they do know having an adequate level of folic acid in the body before and during pregnancy drastically reduces the risk for birth defects. The incidence of spina bifida declined 31 percent between 1996 and 2006, clearly as the direct result of the Public Health Service Folic Acid recommendation.