Eating For Two

In recognition of Birth Defects Prevention Month, celebrity Susie Castillo and the Grain Foods Foundation are taking time to remind women about the important role that enriched grains play in helping to prevent birth defects.

Susie Castillo is the third Hispanic woman ever to win Miss USA. She’s been named one of People en Español’s “25 Most Beautiful People.” And she’s become one of the entertainment industry’s media darlings in her role as an MTV VJ, hosting the cable network’s Times Square-based “TRL” (“Total Request Live”). Castillo also has had the opportunity to interview some of today’s biggest stars, including Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lopez and Jamie Foxx. She even hosts her own internationally syndicated, bilingual hit radio show, “TRLatino.”
Now, the Puerto Rican-Dominican beauty has formed a partnership with the Grain Foods Foundation (GFF) that is committed to raising awareness about the importance of consuming enriched grains and the significant role they play in preventing birth defects.
A woman’s diet and lifestyle throughout her childbearing years — principally her 20’s and 30’s — have a sizeable impact on her unborn child. According to the GFF, of the 4 million women who give birth in the United States each year, nearly 3,000 babies are born with neural tube defects (NTDs). Yet some NTDs can be prevented by incorporating folic acid rich foods, such as enriched grains, into a woman’s diet before she becomes pregnant.
Folic acid is essential for a fetus’ spinal cord development in the first three weeks of pregnancy, often before a woman even is aware of the fact that she’s expecting. Foods made from enriched white flour — especially bread — contain many important B vitamins such as niacin, thiamine and riboflavin, in addition to folic acid, which is a vital player in preventing birth defects.
Data from the GFF notes that since 1998, when the Food & Drug Administration mandated folic acid-fortification of enriched grains in the United States, NTDs, including spina bifida, have declined by 36% in Hispanics and 34% in white, non-Hispanics. Hispanic women are 50% more likely than white, non-Hispanic women to have a child born with NTDs. That’s why products such as bread, crackers, bagels, pasta and tortillas made from enriched white flour are so important for nourishing growing fetuses. In fact, enriched grains have been fortified with twice the amount of folic acid found in whole grain products. 
While most women are aware of the fact that maintaining a healthy diet during pregnancy is a key factor in the health of their unborn child, many don’t realize that eating healthfully is equally as important pre-pregnancy. Although a number of women plan their pregnancies and take the necessary prenatal vitamins in advance, more than 50% of pregnancies in the United States are unplanned. Daily consumption of folic acid pre-pregnancy is crucial because NTDs occur early in the weeks after conception, and studies show that if all women consumed the recommended amount of folic acid before and during pregnancy, up to 70% of NTDs could be prevented.
Although 27-year-old Castillo isn’t pregnant now, she has dedicated herself to keeping up a healthy, well-balanced diet and lifestyle. Here, she shares with Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery some facts about eating enriched grains, their impact on health and, more importantly, how to protect the unborn.
Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery: Why is it important to consume enriched grains such as bread, crackers and tortillas?

Susie Castillo: Enriched grains provide important B vitamins such as niacin, riboflavin and thiamine, as well as folic acid. Additionally, the folic acid in white bread is fortified at twice the amount as is found naturally in whole grain bread.
SF&WB: What nutritional benefits do folic acid-enriched breads and grains provide, regardless of a woman’s pregnant or non-pregnant state?
Castillo: Folic acid helps to prevent the incidence of certain birth defects, including neural tube defects, neuroblastoma (cancer in infants) and congenital heart disease. Additionally, folic acid can help to decrease the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension and cancer.
SF&WB: Why is it important for women, especially those in their childbearing years, to incorporate folic acid-enriched breads and grains into their diet?
Castillo: Women in their 20’s and 30’s often follow the latest diet trends to lose weight. Poor eating habits during a woman’s childbearing years don’t just affect her health. They can also impact the health of her future baby. And because approximately 50% of pregnancies are unplanned, she may not be thinking about eating for two.
SF&WB: What kinds of birth defects can folic acid-enriched grains help prevent?
Castillo: Folic acid helps to prevent birth defects of the brain and spinal cord such as spina bifida and anencephaly. It also can help prevent congenital heart defects. In fact, since the FDA mandated the fortification of enriched grains in 1998, the incidence of neural tube defects has declined by one-third.
SF&WB: Many women are aware of the fact that they should maintain a healthy diet during pregnancy, but why is diet equally important pre-pregnancy?
Castillo: It’s important for women to consume foods rich in folic acid before they get pregnant because most birth defects occur within the first few weeks of pregnancy — often before a woman even knows she’s expecting.
SF&WB: What are some tasty ways for women to add grains to their diets?
Castillo: Grains are among the tastiest and easiest foods to eat! Starting with a healthy breakfast is important — eating a fortified cereal along with orange juice can provide nearly all of one’s folic acid requirements for the day. Toast is also a great option for breakfast. Sandwiches are nutritious and delicious options for lunch or dinner. Pasta is also enriched, so eating pasta with spinach or other leafy green vegetables would be a good option for getting folic acid, as well.
SF&WB: What motivated you to participate in the education of women regarding the benefits of enriched grains?
Castillo: I’ve learned that a lot of people aren’t educated about being healthy. Some don’t even know the basics, which is unfortunate. So, if I can educate women and possibly help them provide the necessary nutrients for their future babies, then that would be amazing. This education effort also is important to me as a Latina since Hispanic women are 50% more likely to have a child born with a neural tube defect, but are less aware of the connection between folic acid and birth defects.
SF&WB: What are your favorite folic acid-enriched grains? Any recipes to share?
Castillo: I really love sandwiches. A couple of my favorites are turkey with avocado and tomato, and banana and peanut butter.
Editor’s Note: In addition to being Birth Defects Prevention Month, January also plays host to Folic Acid Awareness week. Both initiatives share a common goal of increasing awareness of the importance of folic acid consumption. For more info, visit