Putting folic acid in food is a tricky area

Research Lives: Dr Mary Rose Sweeney, senior lecturer and associate dean for research in the faculty of science & health at Dublin City University

Dr Mary Rose Sweeney: “Some countries have mandatory addition of synthetic folic acid to staple foods.”  Photograph: Frank Miller

Dr Mary Rose Sweeney: “Some countries have mandatory addition of synthetic folic acid to staple foods.” Photograph: Frank Miller

 

How did you become interested in health research?

I fell into it. I come from Co Donegal and at 18 I went to train as a nurse at St James’s Hospital in Dublin. Through that I became interested in dietetics, so I went to Ulster University to study human nutrition. To help pay the bills, I worked as a phlebotomist for research projects where they needed blood taken from participants. Through a combination of this hands-on exposure and my final year project I decided that was what I wanted to do.

What happened next?

A researcher from Trinity, the late Prof John Scott, came to UU to give a talk about folic acid to us. I thought it was a fascinating subject so I asked him if I could do a PhD on it. He said yes and it has been a strong research interest of mine ever since.

Why look at folic acid?

Folic acid is a B-vitamin, and if a woman does not have a high enough intake of it in the early stages of pregnancy, that increases the risk of neural tube defects like spina bifida. So women who could become pregnant are encouraged to take a folic acid supplement. Some countries have mandatory addition of synthetic folic acid to staple foods, but in Ireland food companies decide whether to add it or not. It is a tricky area of public health policy though, because you want to try to ensure that the people who need folic acid have enough, without over-exposing the wider population unnecessarily.

What kind of work have you done on it?

I spent the first two years of my PhD in a biochemistry lab [working on] a method to measure folic acid in blood. I used to bake bread and add an exact amount of synthetic folic acid so I knew exactly how much was in there. Then I asked study participants to eat slices and I measured folic acid status in their blood at time points afterwards.

Since then we have measured background folic acid status in various populations in Ireland, including the elderly and pregnant women and children. I think it’s important to have these baseline datasets.

You were in the news recently for school lunches…

Yes, we looked at some secondary schools in Ireland and found the homemade lunches generally had a higher nutritional value than the lunches available in schools or that students were buying themselves from shops. We are working with schools now to improve the nutritional quality of lunches and also to boost physical activity among students.

What else do you work on?

My team and I have looked at autism prevalence [in children] in education in Ireland and we are working towards DCU being an “autism-friendly” campus. We have also been looking at how taking part in the Special Olympics affects the health and wellbeing of people with intellectual disabilities.

Does an interest in health run in your family?

Actually, yes. My mum started training as a nurse but had to give it up with she married. One of my sisters is a GP, another is a researcher with the NHS, and one is a physiotherapist and my brother is a vet so it was definitely in the blood.

What’s next for your research?

I have recently become intrigued by fibromyalgia, a rheumatic condition that causes pain, stiffness and tenderness. I have a few research ideas, so watch this space!

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