Folic acid fortification prevents neural tube defects and may also reduce cancer risks


Margaretha Jägerstad, professor emerita, Department of Food Science, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, P.O.Box 7051, SE-75007, Uppsala, Sweden.
Tel: +4618-321863 |


The prevalence of neural tube defect (NTD)-affected pregnancies ranges between 0.4 and 2/1000 pregnancies in EU. NTDs result in severe malformations and sometimes miscarriages. Children born with NTD suffer for the rest of their life of disability and chronic healthcare issues, and many women therefore choose termination of pregnancy if NTD is diagnosed prenatally. Women planning for pregnancy are recommended to eat 400 μg folic acid/d, whereas average figures across Europe indicate intakes of ∼250 μg/d for women of fertile age, a gap that could be bridged by implementation of folic acid fortification. The results of mandatory folic acid fortifications introduced in USA and Canada are a decrease between 25 and 45% of NTD pregnancies.

Conclusion:  Evidence-based NTD prophylaxis is now practised in more than 60 countries worldwide. EU countries worry over possible cancer risks, but ignore a wealth of studies reporting decreasing cancer risks with folate intakes at recommended levels. Currently, there are indications of a U-shaped relationship, that is, higher cancer risks at low folate intakes (<150 μg/day) and highly elevated folate intakes (>1 mg/day), respectively. However neither the global World Cancer Research review nor EU’s European Food Safety Authority report present data on increased cancer risk at physiological folate intake levels. Therefore, EU should act to implement folic acid fortification as NTD prophylaxis as soon as possible.