Do you know the difference between folic acid and folate? If not, you are not alone. There is a great deal of confusion on the subject and many people assume that folic acid and folate are interchangeable and act on the body in the same way. In reality, however, they are quite distinct compounds and may have very different effects on your health.
Folate is a general term for a water-soluble vitamin, also called B9. It is naturally found in the form tetrahydrofolate (THF) and is contained in many foods including leafy greens like kale and spinach. Folic acid on the other hand, is a synthetic oxidized compound that is found in many supplements and fortified foods.
You may have heard that folate is recommended for pregnant women to prevent certain birth defects like spina bifida and other neural tube disorders. While this is a very important use of the vitamin, it also does so much more! Folate (along with Vitamin B12) is necessary for proper cellular division and many metabolic functions. Folate deficiency is associated with anemia, fatigue, increased risk for certain cancers, and elevated homocysteine (an inflammatory marker that is closely linked to heart disease and stroke risk). There is also evidence that a lack of folate may be associated with mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.
However, all folate is not created equal. Several studies point to a correlation between excessive amounts of synthetic folic acid and increased incidence of some cancers. This may be because the body has trouble metabolizing folic acid and turning it into the active form of the vitamin, methyltetrahydrofolate (MTHF). Large amounts of unmetabolized folic acid can be toxic to human cells.
Until more research is available on the subject, I recommend avoiding synthetic folic acid. Concentrate instead on eating plenty of folate-rich foods such as green leafy vegetables, fruits, nuts, lentils, beans, meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and liver. If your dietary intake of folate is inadequate you may choose to supplement with natural or activated folate. Be sure to read the label on your multivitamin or B-complex to see what form of folate they include and look for 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF), sometimes under the brand-name “Metfolin”. High doses of any form of folate should be avoided unless prescribed by a licensed healthcare provider. Typical dosages of folate for most adults are in the range of 400-1000 mcg per day.
- National Institutes of Health Folate Fact Sheet
- Designs for Health Folic Acid vs Folate Article
- Folate and Depression on Psychology Today