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Background: Folic acid (pteroylmonoglutamic acid) supplements are highly effective for prevention of neural tube defects (NTD) prompting implementation of mandatory or voluntary folic acid fortification for prevention of NTDs. We used plasma folate levels in population studies by country and year to compare effects of folic acid fortification types (mandatory or voluntary folic acid fortification policies) on plasma folate levels, NTD prevalence and stroke mortality rates. Methods: We conducted systematic reviews of (i) implementation of folic acid fortification in 193 countries that were member states of the World Health Organization by country and year, and (ii) estimated population mean plasma folate levels by year and type of folic acid fortification. We identified relevant English language reports published between Jan 1, 1990 and July 31, 2023 using Google Scholar, Medline, Embase and Global Health. Eligibility criteria were observational or interventional studies with >1000 participants. Studies of pregnant women or children <15 years were excluded. Using an ecological study design, we examined the associations of folic acid fortification types with NTD prevalence (n = 108 studies) and stroke mortality rates (n = 3 countries). Findings: Among 193 countries examined up to 31 July 2023, 69 implemented mandatory folic acid fortification, 47 had voluntary fortification, but 77 had no fortification (accounting for 32%, 53% and 15% of worldwide population, respectively). Mean plasma folate levels were 36, 21 and 17 nmol/L in populations with mandatory, voluntary and no fortification, respectively (and proportions with mean folate levels >25 nmol/L were 100%, 15% and 7%, respectively). Among 75 countries with NTD prevalence, mean (95% CI) prevalence per 10,000 population were 4.19 (4.11–4.28), 7.61 (7.47–7.75) and 9.66 (9.52–9.81) with mandatory, voluntary and no folic acid fortification, respectively. However, age-standardised trends in stroke mortality rates were unaltered by the introduction of folic acid fortification. Interpretation: There is substantial heterogeneity in folic acid fortification policies worldwide where folic acid fortification are associated with 50–100% higher population mean plasma folate levels and 25–50% lower NTD prevalence compared with no fortification. Many thousand NTD pregnancies could be prevented yearly if all countries implemented mandatory folic acid fortification. Further trials of folic acid for stroke prevention are required in countries without effective folic acid fortification policies. Funding: Medical Research Council (UK) and British Heart Foundation.

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