Here’s when you should add folic acid to your diet

  • Folate is part of the B vitamins group, including B-6, B-12, and B-9, which help your body produce red blood cells and derive energy from food.
  • Folic acid is the synthetic form of vitamin B-9 used in fortified foods or supplements.
  • Folate helps to lower the risk of spine and brain deformities in pregnancy.

Folate is a form of the vitamin B-9, and folic acid is the synthetic form of folate. Both folate and folic acid are important for immune function, nerve health, and help to prevent certain birth defects when a woman is pregnant.

You get folate naturally through eating a variety of foods or you can take folic acid as a supplement, says registered dietitian Jerlyn Jones, owner of the nutrition counseling business The Lifestyle Dietitian and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The recommended dietary allowance for folate in adults is 400 micrograms a day.

Here are some more details on the difference between folate versus folic acid.

What is folate?

Folate, a form of vitamin B-9, is part of the B vitamins group, including B-6, B-12, and B-9, which help your body to produce red blood cells and derive energy from food.

In addition to helping your immune function and nerve health, folate also helps the body to break down an amino acid called homocysteine. When there’s too much homocysteine in the body, it can raise the risk of heart disease.

You may also have heard about folate in relation to pregnant women. That’s because folate helps to lower the risk of spine and brain deformities, or neural tube defects, Jones says.

The recommended dietary allowance for folate in adults is 400 micrograms a day, according to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements. However, that increases to 600 micrograms a day during pregnancy and 500 micrograms daily when breastfeeding. Getting enough folate is also important if you aren’t currently pregnant but are trying to conceive.

Some good food sources for folate include:

  • 3 ounces of beef liver, which provides 54% of the daily value (DV) of folate.
  • A half-cup of boiled spinach (33% of the DV).
  • A half-cup of cooked, enriched spaghetti (19% of the DV).
  • A half-cup of black-eyed peas (26% of the DV).

Other beans such as pinto beans, chickpeas, edamame, and black beans also are good sources of folate, says registered dietitian Robin Foroutan, owner of the nutrition counseling business Nutrition by Robin and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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Because folate is a water-soluble vitamin, it’s not dangerous to get too much folate from food, Foroutan says. Your body can get rid of any excess folate through urine.

What is folic acid?

Although you may hear people use the words folate and folic acid interchangeably, they are different, Jones says. Folic acid is the synthetic form of vitamin B-9. That means it’s the form of folate used in fortified foods or supplements. Some examples of foods fortified with folic acid include cereals, pasta, and bread.

However, one risk of having too much folic acid (again, the synthetic form of folate) is that it can hide the signs of a vitamin B12 deficiency. That’s because the folic acid corrects one common symptom of B-12 deficiency called megaloblastic anemia, but it doesn’t correct damage to the nervous system. You may not notice the nerve system damage until it’s more advanced. That deficiency could cause irreversible damage to the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. To help avoid this, your health provider may recommend using a folic acid supplement that also has 100% of the recommended daily value of vitamin B-12.

It’s also possible that getting too much folic acid can raise your risk for certain types of cancer. For instance, taking too much folic acid after a diagnosis of colorectal cancer may speed the progression of that cancer. Researchers are still trying to determine the connection between folic acid and cancer.

Federal guidelines say that a tolerable upper limit for folic acid is 1,000 micrograms daily for adults. However, there’s no upper limit on getting folate from food.

Is folate or folic acid healthier?

It’s best to get your folate from natural food sources because folic acid is not used by the body as effectively as folate, Foroutan says. If that’s not possible – or if you’re trying to conceive,  pregnant, or breastfeeding – you may need to rely on folic acid to help get the extra dosage.

Most people in the US get enough folate. However, in addition to pregnant or breastfeeding women, other populations may need a folic acid supplement. These include:

  • People with celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease, who may have trouble absorbing folate.
  • People who have had surgery on the digestive organs.
  • People who have an alcohol use disorder.

Some people have a gene variant called methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase, or MTHFR. With this gene variant, your body doesn’t use folate as efficiently as it should, Jones says. If you have the MTHFR gene variant, talk to your doctor about how to get more folate from natural food sources or an absorbable form of folic acid, such as a methylated supplement.

Insider’s takeaway

The difference between folate and folic acid is that folate is the natural form of vitamin B-9 whereas folic acid is the synthetic form. In general, the body processes folate better than folic acid, so it’s best to try to get your daily B-9 recommendation from folate-rich foods like leafy greens, enriched grains, and pulses.

Check with your doctor before using folic acid supplementation. This is important because folic acid can cause some drugs, such as anti-seizure medications or cancer and arthritis medications, to be less effective.

At health appointments, always let medical staff know if you are taking a folic acid supplement (or any other type of vitamin or mineral supplement).

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