Red blood cell folate likely overestimated in australian national survey: Implications for neural tube defect risk

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In 2009, the Australian government mandated the addition of folic acid to bread flour to reduce the incidence of neural tube defects (NTD)-affected pregnancies. In 2011–2012, the Australian Health Measures Survey (AHMS) reported a mean red blood cell (RBC) folate in women of reproductive age (16–44 y) of 1647 nmol/L. Over 99% of women had an RBC folate ≥ 906 nmol/L, a concentration consistent with a very low risk of NTDs if a woman became pregnant. However, RBC folate was measured using an immunoassay, which is not a recommended method due to questionable accuracy. The microbiological assay is the preferred method for RBC folate measurement. To determine whether the immunoassay method may have led to spurious conclusions about the folate status of Australian women, we collected fasting blood samples from 74 healthy non-pregnant, non-lactating women (18–44 y) and measured RBC folate using both the immunoassay and microbiological methods. Mean RBC folate (95% confidence interval) concentration measured with the immunoassay method was 1735 (1666, 1804) nmol/L compared with 942 (887, 1012) nmol/L using the microbiological method. No woman had an RBC folate < 906 nmol/L using the immunoassay method, whereas 46% of women had an RBC folate < 906 nmol/L using the microbiological method. The NTD risk was estimated to be 0.06% using the immunoassay method and 0.14% using the microbiological method. RBC folate using AHMS survey may have underestimated NTD risk in Australian women.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1283
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished or Issued - May 2020


  • Folate measurement
  • Immunoassay
  • Microbiological assay
  • Neural tube defects
  • Red cell folate

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Food Science
  • Nutrition and Dietetics

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