In an exploratory study of the genetic epidemiology of neural tube defects in Newfoundland, we studied mothers who had given birth to a child with a neural tube defect (NTD) with respect to their nutrition, as well as various other factors. The frequency of NTD in the area studied was 3.5/1,000 births and has not decreased recently, as it has in some other parts of the world. Twenty-five mothers of children with NTD and a comparison group (CG), matched for age and neighbourhood, completed 3 day dietary records. The NTD group consisted of all mothers who had given birth to an NTD child within the previous 3.5 years in the chosen area. The CG mothers were ascertained through the local public health nurse who chose the nearest unaffected child born in the same time period as the NTD probands. NTD mothers were younger, heavier, and of lower socioeconomic status than were CG mothers. CG group women consumed more vitamin supplements during the periconceptional period (P < 0.05) and consumed more dairy and cereal products, fruits and vegetables (other than potatoes), and fewer sweets than did NTD mothers. Sixty-four percent of NTD mothers had folacin intakes below the recommended level (168 mg) compared to 27% of CG mothers (P < 0.01). These findings support previous evidence that poor maternal nutrition, and low dietary folate in particular, increase the chance of having a child with an NTD, and emphasize the need for supplementary folate in the diet of women of childbearing age in areas where the frequency of NTDs is high.