Folic acid v. Folate
Folic acid and folate are two forms of the same nutrient, vitamin B9. Folate is a naturally occurring form of vitamin B9 found in foods such as leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits, beans, and fortified grains. The body requires ample amounts of this important nutrient to help produce red blood cells and prevent anemia.
Folic acid is a synthesized version of vitamin B9 used in dietary supplements or added to fortified foods like cereal or bread. Like any synthetic chemical compound made in a lab setting it can be toxic at high levels when consumed over long periods. Some studies suggest that folic acid may interfere with the absorption of natural folate from food sources which may result in serious health risks (1).
Folic Acid: A Brief History
Folic acid, a synthetic form of folate found naturally only in very small amounts and not present within our bodies’ cells can be added to foods as an ingredient. This artificial vitamin supplement was first introduced as a mandatory ingredient in enriched grain products in 1998 to help prevent birth defects (2). In 1999, the FDA also mandated that companies fortify their foods with folic acid as a way to help prevent heart disease and stroke (3). However, the average American has been consuming this synthetic chemical for decades before it was directly linked to a spectrum of health issues.
Why? It’s because not everyone has the same ability to turn folic acid into a form that our bodies can use--particularly, 5-methyltetrahydrofolate, or 5-MTHF. And when it comes down to that, some people will find themselves in an unfortunate position where they might have too much folic acid or a genetic variation which makes conversion difficult for them--which can result in body toxicicity, and which can lead to a host of other health conditions (4).
Folic acid has been one of the most popular versions of pregnancy supplements, but it’s not always a safe bet. Folic acid has been known as a shelf-stable and more cost-effective version of folate. (It's so popular, chances are you know this term better than "folate.") Because of its use history, pregnancy supplementation studies have relied on the old data - which means many companies developing prenatal multivitamins stick to what seems like an easy choice for them.
Folate is really important for pregnancy. This essential vitamin supports neural tube development in babies, DNA methylation (a process related to gene expression), and red blood cell formation too! It needs the support of a prenatal multivitamin if you want your healthful well-being during this period when it's needed most (5).
Make no mistake, folic acid is an artificial compound with a chemical structure that is not found in nature. It can cause problems for some people because it’s not the same as natural folate from food sources. And yet it has become a major source of supplementation for expectant mothers and nearly every prenatal vitamin on the market contains folic acid.
Folate (natural), on the other hand, is a water-soluble B vitamin found in foods such as leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits, beans, and fortified grains. It is naturally synthesized by many plants, yeast, and bacteria yet it’s one of the few nutrients humans can't make in their bodies.
So what’s the right choice? If you happen to be one of the people with a similar ability to convert folic acid in your body, you’ll be fine. But if it doesn't agree with you, then why settle for less when you can receive all that natural folate from natural sources? Leafy greens, legumes, citrus fruits, and nuts are just a handful of the food sources that can provide your body with natural folate - all without any harsh synthetic chemicals and with the bonus of being able to receive the additional nutrients from those foods as well!