Periconceptional folic acid (FA) is known to have a protective effect in the prevention of neural tube defects (NTD), leading to global recommendations for FA supplementation before and in early pregnancy. Maternal folate throughout pregnancy may have other roles in offspring health, including neurodevelopment and cognitive performance in childhood. Folate is essential for C1 metabolism, a network of pathways involved in several biological processes including nucleotide synthesis, DNA repair and methylation reactions. The evidence reviewed here shows a conclusive role for offspring health of maternal folate nutrition in early pregnancy and probable benefits in later pregnancy. Folate-mediated epigenetic changes in genes related to brain development and function offer a plausible biological basis to link maternal folate with effects in offspring brain, albeit this research is in its infancy. Mandatory FA fortification of food has proven to be highly effective in decreasing NTD cases in populations where it has been implemented, but this policy is controversial owing to concerns related to potential adverse effects of over-exposure to FA. In the absence of population-wide fortification, and given the generally poor compliance with current FA recommendations, optimising folate status of mothers in very early pregnancy for protection against NTD remains challenging. Thus, current policy in the UK, Ireland and elsewhere in Europe for the prevention of NTD (based on periconceptional FA supplementation only), has proven to be largely ineffective. This review addresses the evidence and the controversies that surround this area, as well as identifying the challenges in translating policy into practice.