Folate is also known as vitamin B9, and like all B vitamins is water soluble. As with many vitamins, our body cannot synthesise it, and so we need to obtain it from our diet. This article will explain the differences between folate and folic acid, how folate works in our body, who will most benefit from it and which foods are high in it.
Folate & folic acid
The terms ‘folate’ and ‘folic acid’ are often interchanged, especially with supplements, and it can be confusing. The only difference between the two is that folate refers to naturally occurring B9, whereas folic acid refers to the synthetically made B9. They both interact in the body in exactly the same way, with the only recognized difference being that folic acid (synthetic form) is more easily absorbed by the intestine. This is very unusual, as synthetic forms of nutrients are usually absorbed less than natural forms.
Role of folate/ folic acid
As with many B vitamins, folate is needed for a vast number of biological functions, but is essential for DNA protection, repair and replication; meaning it is required for all cell division and growth. As DNA is so essential for cell division it is important for pregnant women to ensure they are consuming enough, as the foetus undergoes rapid cell division and so has a very high demand for folate. A deficiency of folate is the most common cause for the birth defect spina bifida, which is a result of partially formed neural tubes.
Any rapidly dividing cells in the body have a high demand for folate, meaning cells involved in sperm production, red blood cell production, nail growth and hair growth have a high demand for folate.
Foods high in folate/ folic acid
Leafy greens (such as spinach), or legumes are highest in folate, but is also found in lower quantities in eggs. Although spinach is contains one of the highest concentrations of folate, 1 cup will only provide approximately 15% of your RDA requirements. This makes obtaining the optimum amount difficult for pregnant women, which is why folate/ folic acid supplementation is recommended. As folate is so important in pregnancy and preventing spina bifida, many cereals are being fortified with folic acid to increase dietary folic acid. This is of particular importance as more and more pregnancies are unplanned, and so women may not be taking the necessary steps to ensure a health pregnancy.
Deficiency & overdose
Aside from spina bifida, deficiency of folate can result in anemia, diarrhea and vomiting. Deficiency can also affect normal brain function which can manifest in depression or anxiety. Deficiency of folate is rare among the general population (especially as now many common foods are fortified with folic acid), but is more common among pregnant women due to their increased requirements for it. Folate has a very complex interaction with vitamin B12, and a deficiency of one can mask the symptoms of the other, this means that is some rare cases folate deficiency is not recognized for many years.
As folate is water soluble, overdose is near impossible; this is because any excess folate will pass out of the body in urine. The only negative side effect of consuming large amounts of folate regularly is it will mask deficiency of B12, which can result in nerve damage.
There is concern that folate may increase the development (not risk of developing) cancer. This is because cancer cells replicate extremely rapidly and so have a huge demand for folate; the more folate/ folic acid you consume the faster cancer can grow. This can be seen when the fortification of foods with folic acid in USA was introduced and there was a spike in the incidence of cancer.
Folate and folic acid are chemically identical, and folate refers to the naturally occurring form on vitamin B6. They behave the same in our body, but folic acid (synthetic) is more bioavailable. Folate has a number of complex roles in the body, but is especially important in replicating and maintaining DNA, making it essential for cell growth. Folate is most abundant in leafy greens, and it is especially important for pregnant women to ensure that they are consuming enough folate, as deficiency can damage the foetus. Overdose is rare, but can mask vitamin B12