Quantifying the effect of folic acid

Lancet. 2001 Dec 15;358(9298):2069-73. doi: 10.1016/s0140-6736(01)07104-5.


Background: Folic acid is known to prevent neural-tube defects (NTDs) but the size of the effect for a given dose is unclear. We aimed to quantify such an effect.

Methods: We used published data from 13 studies of folic acid supplementation on serum folate concentrations and results from a large cohort study of the risk of NTDs according to serum folate, to measure the preventive effect of specified increases in intake of folic acid.

Findings: Serum folate concentrations increase by 0.94 ng/mL (95% CI 0.77-1.10) for every 0.1 mg/day increase in folic acid intake in women aged 20-35 years, and about double that in people aged 40-65. Every doubling of serum folate concentration roughly halves the risk of an NTD. These two effects can be combined to predict the reduction in risk according to intake of extra folic acid and background serum folate concentration. Such results predict that the preventive effect is greater in women with low serum folate than in those with higher concentrations. The results have also been used to predict direct observations from large randomised trials and the effect of food fortification. From a typical western background serum folate of 5 ng/mL, about 0.2 mg/day (the US level of folic acid fortification) would be expected to reduce NTDs by about 20%; a similar effect can be expected from the current British recommendation (0.24 mg/day). An increase of 0.4 mg/day would reduce risk by about 36%, of 1 mg/day by 57%, and taking a 5-mg tablet daily would reduce risk by about 85%.

Interpretation: Folic acid fortification levels should be increased. Additionally women planning a pregnancy should take 5 mg folic acid tablets daily, instead of the 0.4 mg dose presently recommended.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aging / metabolism
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Female
  • Folic Acid* / administration & dosage
  • Folic Acid* / blood
  • Folic Acid* / therapeutic use
  • Hematinics / administration & dosage
  • Hematinics / blood
  • Hematinics / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neural Tube Defects / prevention & control*
  • Pregnancy


  • Hematinics
  • Folic Acid