The terms ‘folate’ and ‘folic acid’ are often used interchangeably. But the truth is that while they may be very similar, folic acid and folate are in fact two different substances – and this is very important.
But why, you may well ask, is this even relevant to a site about methylcobalamin and vitamin B12? Well, as we’ve mentioned before, B12 and folate/folic acid are actually intimately connected. To summarize a whole article in one sentence: if you’re supplementing your diet with one of them, you should probably be taking the other as well.
What are Folate and Folic Acid?
Folate and folic acid are both used as names for vitamin B9 (another B-vitamin, just like B12).
Folate occurs naturally, and you probably consume it on a regular basis in your normal diet. But folic acid is a synthetic compound that does not occur in nature. The only way that folic acid will ever enter your system is via supplements and fortified foods, as folic acid is only manufactured in labs.
So folate and folic acid are not the same, and the terms are not interchangeable.
(N.B. In the world of academic chemistry, the terms are defined differently, but here we’re only looking at the terminology used by the food industry.)
Is Folate Better Than Folic Acid?
The main physiological differences between the effects of folate and folic acid are a result of the way that the two substances are processed by the human body.
The natural folates that you find in food are made up of a variety of different derivatives of tetrahydrofolate (THF). THF is metabolized in the small intestine, which gives your body all the benefits that vitamin B9 brings.
On the other hand, folic acid has to be processed in the liver. This involves the reduction and methylation of the synthetic chemical by a specific enzyme called dihydrofolate reductase. If you don’t have a background in academic chemistry, don’t worry about what this means – the important bit comes next.
The problem is that this crucial enzyme doesn’t have very high activity in the liver. This means that you can end up with unnaturally large quantities of completely unmetabolized folic acid just sitting around inside you. Several scientific studies have found evidence to suggest that this isn’t just theory; it happens in the real world.
Why Is Excess Folic Acid A Problem?
Recent research has linked excess folic acid to a greater risk of several types of cancer. What’s more, this increased risk may well be due to two separate, harmful mechanisms by which folic acid interacts with your body.
Too much folic acid may also mask the symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency, but without alleviating any of the long-term problems associated with the illness. This is why excess folic acid has been linked to lethargy, nerve damage and even cognitive problems, particularly in the elderly.
Do I Even Need Folate?
There are no vitamins that you can live a healthy life without, and folate is no exception.
Vitamin B9 has lots of health benefits. Perhaps the most well-known is its ability to prevent (or reduce the risk of) neural tube defects like spina bifida in newborn babies. One study found that among women who took the recommended dose of folate every day during pregnancy, their children were 70% less likely to suffer from spina bifida than children with mothers who were folate deficient.
Folate is also necessary for the creation, development and regeneration of red blood cells. As a result, healthy folate levels help to prevent anemia. Red blood cells transport oxygen around the body, so obviously they’re pretty important!
Without vitamin B9, your nervous system won’t be able to function fully either.
Folate also brings down the level of homocysteine in your blood. This is excellent news, as high levels of homocysteine are associated with a greater risk of strokes, cardiovascular disease and other related illnesses.
Good Sources of Folate
Folate is readily found in a wide variety of green leafy vegetables, as well as many other vegetarian-friendly sources. These include:
- Brussel sprouts
- Collard greens
- Romaine lettuce
- Garbanzo beans
- Turnip greens
- Mustard greens
Unfortuantely for vegans and vegetarians, calf and chicken liver are some of the very best sources of folate. Many dairy products will also contain a good amount of B9.
Since 1998, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has required that various food products (cereals, pasta, rice, flour and other grains) be fortified with vitamin B9. Unfortunately, they chose to legislate for folic acid rather than naturally occurring folate. Canada introduced similar legislation the same year, and a few other countries (e.g. South Africa, Costa Rica and Chile) have followed suit.
This enforced B9 fortification began as an attempt to ensure pregnant women ingested more vitamin B9, to reduce neural tube defects in newborns. The program has now increased the mean folic acid intake of all US citizens by around 190mcg per day.
Most people will get enough vitamin B9 from simply eating a healthy diet (and because of the FDA’s requirements), but some people might not. This includes pregnant women (who should be taking more than most) and some vegans and vegetarians.
For anyone who chooses to supplement their B9 intake, there’s plenty of choice out there. The main stumbling block is the presence of folic acid in most dietary supplements, particularly in multivitamins. If you want to ensure that your body is getting natural folate, choose a supplement with either the brand Metafolin or with either ‘folate’ or ‘5-methyl THF’ (or ‘5-MTHF’) listed in the ingredients.
These Metafolin supplements would be a good place to start, as would this smaller pack of folate tablets from Jarrow Formulas.
How Much Folate Or Vitamin B9 Do I Need?
This depends not only on who you are, but also on the form of B9 you’re ingesting. Strangely, the synthetic folic acid is more easily absorbed by the human body (it’s said to be more ‘bioavailable’) than natural folate. The result is that to give the same effect, you would need to take around 40% less folic acid than if you were only taking folate.
The RDA for vitamin B9 is 400mcg for men and women over the age of 14, unless you’re a woman who is either pregnant, breastfeeding or trying for a baby.
Women hoping to conceive should aim for 600-800mcg of folate per day both before and during pregnancy, and 500mcg while breastfeeding. To reach these high quantities, dietary supplements are often recommended.
For under-14s the RDAs are as follows:
0-6 months: 65mcg
7-12 months: 80mcg
1-3 years: 150mcg
4-8 years: 200mcg
9-13 years: 300mcg
The first image was obtained through a Creative Commons license. The other images, from top to bottom, are courtesy of Stuart Miles, digitalart, gubgib, renjith krishnan, Suat Eman, Idea go, Stoonn, all at www.freedigitalphotos.net.