BackgroundThis study evaluated gene-nutrition interactions between folate and the aberrant DNA methylation of tumor suppressor genes in different stages of carcinogenesis of esophageal squamous cell carcinoma (ESCC).MethodsTwo hundred ESCC cases, 200 esophageal precancerous lesion (EPL) cases, and 200 controls matched by age (± 2 years) and gender were used for this study. Baseline data and dietary intake information was collected via questionnaire. The serum folate levels and methylation status of promoter regions of p16 and p53 were detected.ResultsThe interactions of increased serum folate level with unmethylated p16 and p53 promoter regions were significantly associated with a reduced risk of both EPL and ESCC (p for interaction < 0.05). The interactions of the lowest quartile of serum folate level with p16 or p53 methylation was significantly associated with an increased risk of ESCC (OR = 2.96, 95% CI, 1.45–6.05; OR = 2.34, 95% CI, 1.15–4.75). An increased serum folate level was also related to a decreasing trend of EPL and ESCC risks when p16 or p53 methylation occurred. The interaction of spinach, Chinese cabbage, liver and bean intake with unmethylated p16 and p53 was significantly associated with a reduced risk of EPL or ESCC (p for interaction < 0.05).ConclusionsThe interactions between a high folate level and unmethylated p16 and p53 promoter regions may have a strong preventive effect on esophageal carcinogenesis. Additionally, a high folate level may offset the tumor-promoting effects of aberrant DNA methylation of the genes, but it is also noteworthy that a very high level of folate may not have a protective effect on EPL in some cases.