Here's the Difference Between Folate and Folic Acid, According to a Physician

·4 min read
Photo credit: Oscar Wong - Getty Images
Photo credit: Oscar Wong - Getty Images

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If you're pregnant or trying to conceive, you may have heard about the importance of folate and folic acid for pregnancy. People often use these terms interchangeably and this can be confusing, even for professionals, but there is a significant difference between the two.

Here's everything you need to know about folate vs. folic acid, including natural food sources of folate and recommendations on supplementation.

What is the main difference between folate and folic acid?

Folate is an important water-soluble B vitamin known as vitamin B9. Folate is needed by the body to make DNA and healthy new cells. You can find folate naturally present in certain foods, and daily folate needs vary based on age and life stage.

"Folate occurs naturally in food, while folic acid is the synthetic form found in many dietary supplements and fortified foods," says Tieraona Low Dog, M.D., author of National Geographic’s Fortify Your Life.

"Folic acid is used to fortify foods as it is more heat and light stable than folate," Dr. Low Dog explains. "Folic acid is not 'active' and must be converted to 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF) to perform all of its important functions."

What are the benefits of consuming folate or folic acid?

Photo credit: Kelvin Murray - Getty Images
Photo credit: Kelvin Murray - Getty Images

"Folate has many important jobs in the body ranging from converting carbs into energy, making red and white blood cells, for the synthesis of DNA and RNA and more," Dr. Low Dog shares.

While everyone needs folate, Dr. Low Dog says that populations most vulnerable include pregnant and nursing women, and those 65 years of age and older.

"Folate is crucial for preventing neural tube defects in babies (birth defects in the brain and spine of the fetus) when adequate amounts are taken before, during and after conception," Dr. Low Dog explains. "Later in pregnancy, it's also vital for the baby’s growth and development."

Folate deficiency in pregnancy may also increase the likelihood of having a baby that is premature or low birth weight.

What foods contain folate?

Photo credit: Yulia Reznikov - Getty Images
Photo credit: Yulia Reznikov - Getty Images

Folate is naturally present in a variety of foods. Some of the highest dietary sources of folate include:

  • Beef liver: 215 mcg per 3 ounces

  • Spinach: 131 mcg per 1/2 cup boiled or 58 mcg for 1 cup raw

  • Black eyed peas: 105 mcg per 1/2 cup boiled

  • Asparagus: 90 mcg for 4 boiled spears

  • Brussels sprouts: 78 mcg for 1/2 cup

  • Romaine lettuce: 64 mcg for 1 cup shredded

  • Avocado: 59 mcg for 1/2 cup sliced

  • Broccoli: 52 mcg for 1/2 cup

  • Mustard greens: 52 mcg for 1/2 cup

  • Green peas: 47 mcg for 1/2 cup

  • Kidney beans: 46 mcg for 1/2 cup

  • Wheat germ: 40 mcg for 2 Tablespoons

These folate-rich foods are all good or excellent sources of the nutrient. Dr. Low Dog adds that it can be difficult for women to consume enough folate from food alone, so supplementation is often needed.

Since 1998, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has required mandatory folic acid fortification of certain foods like enriched bread, pasta, rice, flour and some breakfast cereals. Folic acid intakes have increased over the past several decades since this initiative began and the number of babies born with neural tube defects has decreased.

How much folate per day do expectant mothers need daily?

"According to the US Preventive Task Force, all women who are planning or capable of pregnancy should take a daily supplement containing 400-800 mcg of folic acid," Dr. Low Dog says. "Dietary supplements include the mcg for folic acid and dietary folate equivalents (DFE) on the label: for example, 400 mcg of folic acid is equivalent to 666 mcg DFE."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that it is especially important for women to get this amount of folic acid at least one month before becoming pregnant to help prevent the development of neural tube defects. While you can get a mix of folate and folic acid from foods and supplementation, it's important to discuss your current intake with your doctor to ensure you are meeting your nutritional needs especially if you are pregnant or trying to conceive.

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