Folate…folic acid…these words are used interchangeably so often that people believe they are the same. However, in the body they are recognized and processed as very different forms of vitamin B9.
Folic acid is a synthetic version of B9, only found in supplements and fortified food. Even though its molecular structure is very similar to folate, it requires additional enzymes for the body to break it down – which can be difficult for many bodies to metabolize. There are two conversions it must go through in order to become folate – the structure the body is able to utilize for many key functions. Methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) is a group of key enzymes that convert folic acid into folate. However, if there are any genetic variations within these enzymes, they can reduce the amount of folic acid converted to folate. At this point, the body is receiving less folate than it requires. When the amount of folic acid exceeds a certain amount, your body loses the ability to process it, the liver becomes overwhelmed and folic acid ends up in the bloodstream. This unmetabolized folic acid has been associated with many serious health risks.
Folic acid has been a mandatory fortification by the USDA since 1998. It is included in many enriched grain products such as breads, cereals, flours, pastas and other packaged goods. This regulation was enforced with the goal of decreasing the number of neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, that were occuring during fetal development. Spina bifida is when the neural tube does not fully close, leaving the meninges and spinal cord vulnerably exposed through the vertebrae structure.
It is important to note that folic acid has been consumed in large quantities only recently. It poses a risk for both having too much folic acid in the system as well as not getting the required amounts of folate needed for key functions. Recommendations should be based on each individual’s genetics and enzymatic ability to process B9. This is exactly why there is not one diet that fits everyone.
Folate is the natural form of folic acid, which is found in foods like spinach and liver. It is easily absorbed by the body and utilized efficiently. Folate plays a critical role as a co-enzyme in the process of DNA synthesis as well as cell division. It is recommended to consume at least 400 mcg of folate daily. This amount is increased to 600 mcg daily for women of childbearing years.
Unfortunately, even high quality prenatal and multivitamins contain folic acid instead of the natural-form folate. It is best to get your naturally occurring folate from food sources such as spinach, broccoli, liver, black eyed peas, asparagus, brussel sprouts and avocado. Just a 3 ounce portion of liver will provide over 50% of your daily recommended intake. A half cup of boiled spinach will provide 33% of the daily intake and an avocado will provide 15% of the daily intake.
On top of a great whole food intake of folate, it is important to get a boost through quality supplements. If you are choosing to supplement B9, make sure it is in the form of folate, not folic acid. This is why it is very important to check labels when you are looking for a high quality supplement. Keywords to look for include: folate, Methylhydrotetrafolate or 5-MTHF. For those who know they are genetically metabolizing B9 extremely well, it is recommended to consume folinic acid, which is a natural, non-methylated form of folate.
In general, it is important to be aware of what exactly is in the foods and supplements you chose to consume. While folate and folic acid sound like the same ingredient, they have very distinct roles for the body. As a general rule, find natural sources of the nutrients you are looking for, and your body will thank you!