Folate vs Folic Acid: Did you know that folic acid and folate are not the same thing?
Folic acid and folate are in fact quite different. This is important information for everybody, but it is especially important for pregnant women.
It can actually be quite dangerous for you to supplement with folic acid while pregnant.
Why Folate is so Vitally Important Before and During Pregnancy
You’ve probably heard plenty of times that it is important for you to get enough folic acid during pregnancy in order to avoid Neural Tube Defects (NTD). This is why most women’s multivitamins and prenatal vitamins come with extra folic acid. The need for this nutrient begins before conception – by the time you know you’re pregnant, it’s too late to start supplementing.
Now I said folic acid, but technically the correct term for what your body needs is folate (more about that later). And folate isn’t just important for avoiding NTDs — it can also help reduce the risks of cleft lip and palate, premature birth, low birth weight, miscarriage and other pregnancy complications.
The reason why folate is so vital during pregnancy is that it is needed for the production of new DNA and cells. During the first trimester, the cells of the foetus are constantly dividing. This makes a steady supply of folate paramount.
Folate is also important for the development of red blood cells and to support the nervous system – for both you and the foetus.
Folate vs Folic Acid – they are Not the Same Thing
Folate, also known as B9, is what you’ll find in nature. It’s what your body needs. Folic acid was designed in a laboratory: it’s the man-made chemical used in most supplements and fortified food products.
While folic acid can be converted by the body to a usable form of folate, the conversion process is limited and this frequently leads to excessive levels of unmetabolized folic acid in the blood (this is unhealthy). Furthermore – and incredibly importantly – folic acid cannot cross the placenta to the foetus, the way natural folate can.
Dangers of Folic Acid
These excessive levels of unmetabolized folic acid are correlated with many different health problems:
- Can mask B12 (check out my favorite B12 supplement here) deficiency, which can cause anaemia and also lead to cognitive impairment and decline amongst older adults.
- Can lead to increased rates and development of certain types of cancer (such as colon and prostate cancer).
- Can decrease level of natural killer cells – which play a vital role in your immune system.
Top Natural Sources of Folate
The best way to get folate is to consume it naturally as much as possible. You can check the folate content of most foods here. These are some of the best sources of folate:
- Chicken liver (1 cup = 1,256mcg of folate)
- Lamb’s liver (1 cup = 896mcg of folate)
- Calf’s liver (1 cup = 784mcg of folate)
- Beef liver (1 cup = 582.4mcg of folate)
- Pork liver (1 cup = 364.8mcg of folate)
- Dark leafy greens, such as:
- Spinach (1 cup = 263mcg of folate)
- Collard greens (1 cup = 177mcg of folate)
- Turnip greens (1 cup = 170mcg of folate)
- Mustard greens (1 cup = 103mcg of folate)
- Romaine lettuce (1 cup = 76mcg of folate)
- Brussels Sprouts (1 cup = 53.7mcg of folate)
- Kale (1 cup = 19.4mcg of folate)
- Asparagus (1 cup = 262mcg of folate)
- Avocado (1 avocado = 163mcg of folate)
- Beets (1 cup = 148mcg of folate)
- Certain fruits, such as:
- Papaya (1 papaya = 115mcg of folate)
- Orange (1 orange = 40mcg of folate)
- Grapefruit (1 grapefruit = 30mcg of folate)
- Strawberries (1 cup = 25mcg of folate)
- Raspberries (1 cup = 14mcg of folate)
- Beans, peas and lentils, for example:
- Green peas (1 cup = 101mcg of folate)
- Green beans (1 cup = 42mcg of folate)
- Broccoli (1 cup = 57.2mcg of folate)
- Cauliflower (1 cup = 55mcg of folate)
- Winter squash (1 cup = 57mcg of folate)
- Summer squash (1 cup = 36mcg of folate)
- Nuts and seeds (although I wouldn’t recommend eating a cup at a time!), such as:
- Sunflower seeds (1 cup = 318mcg of folate)
- Flax seeds (1 cup = 224mcg of folate)
- Hazelnuts (1 cup = 153mcg of folate)
- Sesame seeds (1 cup = 140mcg of folate)
- Cashew nuts (1 cup = 94.5mcg of folate)
- Pumpkin seeds (1 cup = 80mcg of folate)
- Pistachio nuts (1 cup = 62.7mcg of folate)
- Almonds (1 cup = 46mcg of folate)
Folate vs Folic Acid: How to Choose Your Best Folate Supplement
The RDI for folate is 400mcg/day for most people, and between 500-600mcg/day for women who are breastfeeding, pregnant or trying to conceive. This amount is just the minimum to prevent birth defects however, and people such as Chris Kresser, recommend going up to 800-1200mcg/day starting several months before you try to get pregnant. Just make sure that when you choose folate vs folic acid for your supplement, you choose one that has folate from natural souces (not a folic acid supplement!).
When choosing a supplement, make sure that it says “5-methyltetrahydrofolate”, “5-MTHF” or Metfolin on the label. Again, make sure that it does not say folic acid!
Of course you should also check out my post on the top 9 foods to “supplement” with during pregnancy.
What do you think? Do you have experience with folate vs folic acid? What did you supplement with before and during pregnancy?
Folate vs Folic Acid: Learn More
- 5 Myths About Pregnancy Nutrition – #5: Folic Acid Supplements Are Safe – Healthy Baby Code
- 15 Foods High in Folic Acid – Global Healing Center
- The little known (but crucial) difference between folate and folic acid – Chris Kresser