Invited Commentary: Preventing Neural Tube Defects and More via Food Fortification?

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Abstract

Many neural tube defects can be prevented if women take folic acid around the time of conception. However, the majority of women do not take folic acid at the critical time, so the US government required that food be fortified with folic acid effective January 1, 1998. Whether the amount being added was sufficient to prevent all folate-related neural tube defects has been hotly debated. Mosley et al. (Am J Epidemiol. 2008;169(1):9-17) found no evidence that folic acid supplement use or dietary folate intake was related to neural tube defects, indicating that fortified food is probably providing sufficient folic acid to prevent folate-related defects. Because data on the effectiveness of fortification in the United States are scarce, this is an important contribution. There is great interest in the other effects of fortification. Folic acid reduces homocysteine levels, and homocysteine has been linked to cardiovascular disease and cancer. On the basis of current evidence, however, it seems unlikely that fortification will reduce cardiovascular disease rates. Its effect on cancer remains unclear. Folic acid may be useful in primary prevention but may also stimulate the growth of existing malignancies or premalignant lesions. Although these issues remain unresolved, Mosley et al. have provided important data to address the primary question: Does fortification prevent folate-related neural tube defects?

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