Meet the Scientist Interview: Christine Pfeiffer

Posted on by Dr. Christopher J. Portier
Dr. Portier meets with Dr. Pfeiffer

My “Meet the Scientist” series brings you conversations with NCEH/ATSDR scientists that aim to give you a sense of the talented people who are working to keep you safe and secure from those things in the environment that threaten our nation’s health.

By now, most of us have heard about the importance of folate in our diets. Folate belongs to the group of water-soluble B vitamins that occur naturally in food. Leafy green vegetables (such as spinach and turnip greens), fruits (such as citrus fruits and juices), and dried beans and peas are all natural sources of folate. Folate is also important for the neural tube development of the fetus during pregnancy. I sat down to talk with Dr. Christine Pfeiffer, the lead nutritionist who continues to conduct folate research in the Division of Laboratory Sciences.

About Christine

Christine Pfeiffer was born in Romania. When she was 13, she and her family moved to Karlsruhe, Germany.  We talked about how she attended the Technical University of Karlsruhe to earn the PhD in food chemistry with a focus on analytical chemistry techniques and on food law. She came to the U.S. in 1994 to complete her post-doctorate work at the University of Florida in Gainesville, with a focus on folate. Shortly thereafter, Christine learned CDC was looking for a scientist with a folate background. Given her love of applied research that covers a broad spectrum of natural sciences, and a desire to continue her work with folate, Christine was a perfect fit for the position! She has been with CDC since 1996.

What’s Most Interesting about Her Work?

“Because of the reach of my work,” explains Christine, “I get the chance to interact with people both within and outside CDC, work on papers and reports, and coordinate many projects.”

She also told me that a typical work day could cover a wide range of activities such as reviewing laboratory data, providing advice on adding nutritional biomarkers into a new study, planning activities to improve measurements of biomarkers, or interviewing potential job applicants. “I am fortunate to work with a very talented and energetic group of people who really want to move things forward and put in their best effort every day,” she says.

Current Projects

I was interested in knowing more specifics about her current work projects, because for the past two years, Christine has been heavily involved with the development and production of CDC’s Second Nutrition Report. Using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), the report assesses the nutrition status of the U.S. population based on biomarkers measured in blood and urine and whether the nutrition status has changed over the eight-year period between 1999–2006.

“We present nutrition biomarker data by age, gender, and race/ethnicity to see whether certain population subgroups have poorer nutrition status than other groups” said Christine. “For example, the report investigates whether the general population and specific groups have adequate status of

  • vitamins such as folate (important for the neural tube development of the fetus during pregnancy) and vitamin D (essential for good bone health), and
  •  trace elements such as iron (important to avoid anemia) and iodine (important for the brain development of the fetus during pregnancy).”

Did You Know…

Fatty acids are the building blocks of fats. Saturated fatty acids are commonly found in animal fat, including dairy products. Olive, canola, and safflower oils are rich in monounsaturated fatty acids. For example, good sources of polyunsaturated fatty acids include soybeans, corn, cottonseed oils, and fatty fish.

Want to lower your risk of heart disease? Then try limiting your dietary intake of saturated fatty acids to no more than 10% of caloric intake and replacing them with mono- or polyunsaturated.

The report also investigates whether blood levels of unhealthy saturated fatty acids and heart-healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids differ among population groups. Christine also mentioned that “the Nutrition Report showcases the work our lab does, including our high-quality, state-of-the-art methods.”

CDC plans to release the Second Nutrition Report this spring.

Why Her Work is Rewarding

I could tell that Christine is excited about her work, but I wanted to know why she found it rewarding. “Much work and thought goes into accurately assessing and then improving the health of the U.S. population” said Christine. “Knowing that nutrition status is an important determinant of health, it is a wonderful opportunity to be able to provide critical information so that public health scientists can develop better recommendations for dietary intake and personal lifestyle. The data we produce and the research we conduct is one piece of the puzzle, and only when all pieces are together, can the puzzle be solved.”

Posted on by Dr. Christopher J. Portier

5 comments on “Meet the Scientist Interview: Christine Pfeiffer”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    During the exact years folic acid use increased, autism also increased.

    It is plausible that opposite extremes in vitamin status (concomitant high folic acid in the presence of low vitamin b12– it’s co-factor) causes epigenic changes in the brains of the unborn. The statistics seem to show that populations that did not typically get autism began getting autism when exposed to folic acid fortification of foods and vitamins.

    High folic acid intake will mask a vitamin B12 deficiency. Unmetabolized folic acid (unlike natural folate) will build up in a person who does not have enough vitamin B12. Homocysteine and methylmalonic acid will build up in a person who does not have enough vitamin B12. Elevated homocysteine seems to have clear links to autism risk.


    Elissa Leonard

    Thank you for reading the blog and for your comments. Scientific evidence is still accumulating as to the causes of autism. CDC is working to find out how many children have ASDs, discover the risk factors, and raise awareness of the signs. Information about our work and links to other materials are available at

    Three years after my earlier comment, we see that unmetabolized folic acid is “nearly ubiquitous” in America. We are approaching the 20th anniversary of our mandatory “folic-acid-only” experiment in public health and the CDC still cannot tell us whether unmetabolized folic acid, concomitant undetected B12 deficiency, and high homocysteine from deranged one-carbon-metabolism are involved in the rise in autism from 1 in 10,000 before we added folic-acid-only to the womb, and today’s autism rate of 1 in 45.

    Saying now, two decades later, that “folate/B12 interactions are complicated” is an admission that the highest standards of safety and monitoring have not been employed in tracking epidemics of disease that could plausibly be explained by opposite extremes of co-factors vitamin B12 and synthetic folate.

    No one should be injured by B12 deficiency. No one should have high homocysteine and/or methylmalonic acid building up. Failure to test and treat is legally medically negligent.

    It would help if the CDC would get the word out about these preventable and treatable conditions that harm women and babies.

    Elissa Leonard

    J Nutr. 2015 Mar;145(3):520-31. doi: 10.3945/jn.114.201210. Epub 2014 Dec 10.
    Unmetabolized folic acid is detected in nearly all serum samples from US children, adolescents, and adults.
    Pfeiffer CM1, Sternberg MR2, Fazili Z2, Yetley EA3, Lacher DA4, Bailey RL3, Johnson CL4.
    Author information
    Serum total folate consists mainly of 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-methylTHF). Unmetabolized folic acid (UMFA) may occur in persons consuming folic acid-fortified foods or supplements.
    We describe serum 5-methylTHF and UMFA concentrations in the US population ≥1 y of age by demographic variables and fasting time, stratified by folic acid-containing dietary supplement use. We also evaluate factors associated with UMFA concentrations >1 nmol/L.
    Serum samples from the cross-sectional NHANES 2007-2008 were measured for 5-methylTHF (n = 2734) and UMFA (n = 2707) by HPLC-tandem mass spectrometry.
    In supplement users compared with nonusers, we found significantly higher geometric mean concentrations of 5-methylTHF (48.4 and 30.7 nmol/L, respectively) and UMFA (1.54 and 0.794 nmol/L, respectively). UMFA concentrations were detectable (>0.3 nmol/L) in >95% of supplement users and nonusers, regardless of demographic or fasting characteristics; concentrations differed significantly by age and fasting time, but not by sex and race-ethnicity, both in supplement users and nonusers. The prevalence of UMFA concentrations >1 nmol/L was 33.2% overall and 21.0% in fasting (≥8 h) adults (≥20 y of age). Using multiple logistic regression analysis, UMFA concentrations >1 nmol/L were associated with being older, non-Hispanic black, nonfasting (1 nmol/L.
    UMFA detection was nearly ubiquitous, and concentrations >1 nmol/L were largely but not entirely explained by fasting status and by total folic acid intake from diet and supplements. These new UMFA data in US persons ≥1 y of age provide much-needed information on this vitamer in a fortified population with relatively high use of dietary supplements.
    © 2015 American Society for Nutrition.

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