Folic acid fortification, maternal obesity and neural tube defects: Policy implications

Parisa Assassi, The University of Texas School of Public Health


In 1996, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandated that beginning in January 1998, flour and other enriched grain products be fortified with 140 μg of folic acid per 100 g of grain to prevent neural tube defects (NTDs) that occur in approximately 1 in 1,000 pregnancies in the United States (U.S.). Although this program has demonstrated important public health effects, it is argued that current fortification levels may not be enough to prevent all folic acid-preventable NTD cases. This study reviews published literature, on folic acid fortification in the U.S. and countries with mandatory folic acid fortification programs reported after 1992 and through January 2008. Published studies are evaluated to determine if the current level of folic acid fortification in the U.S. is adequate to prevent the most common forms of NTDs (spina bifida and anencephaly), particularly among overweight and obese women. Although consistent improvement in blood folate levels of child bearing age women is reported in almost all studies, the RBC folate concentration has not reached the level associated with the most significant reduction of risk for NTDs (906 nmol/L); approximately half of the potentially preventable NTDs are prevented by fortification at the current U.S. level. Furthermore, the blood folate status of women in higher BMI categories (obese or overweight) has not improved as much as among women in lower BMI categories. Therefore, women classified as overweight or obese have not benefited from the preventive effects of folic acid fortification as much as normal or underweight women. To reduce risk of folate preventable NTDs, especially in overweight and obese women, it may be necessary to increase the current level of folic acid fortification. However, further research is required to determine the optimal levels of fortification to achieve this goal without causing adverse health effects in the general population.

Subject Area

Nutrition|Public health|Epidemiology

Recommended Citation

Assassi, Parisa, "Folic acid fortification, maternal obesity and neural tube defects: Policy implications" (2008). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI1454655.