What is Folate?
Folate, also known as Vitamin B9, is a water-soluble B-vitamin that is essential for human health. It is found naturally in a variety of foods, including animal products, organ meats, eggs, fish, dairy, vegetables, legumes, fruit, nuts, seeds and fortified processed foods.
Folate is important for several bodily functions, including the production of DNA and red blood cells, the conversion of food into energy, proper functioning of the nervous system and support during pregnancy.
How Much Folate Do We Need?
The RDI (Recommended Dietary Intake) is listed as micrograms (mcg) below:
- Men & women aged 19 yrs and older should aim for 400 mcg
- Pregnant & lactating women require 600 mcg & 500 mcg DFE, respectively
People who regularly drink alcohol should aim for at least 600 mcg daily since alcohol can impair its absorption.
What is Folic Acid?
Folic acid is a synthetic form of vitamin B9. It is made by chemically altering natural folate compounds found in food. The process of making folic acid involves a series of steps, including:
Isolation of natural folates from food sources
Conversion of the natural folates into dihydrofolate (DHF) by adding a chemical reagent called p-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)
Reduction of DHF into tetrahydrofolate (THF) using another chemical reagent.
Synthesis of folic acid by adding a pteridine ring to the THF molecule, which is done with a chemical reagent.
Purification and crystallization of the folic acid to produce a stable, pure product that can be used in supplements and fortified foods.
Folic Acid & the MTHFR Gene
The MTHFR gene stands for methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase. It codes for an enzyme that is responsible for converting folic acid into the active form of folate in the body.
Some people have variations in the MTHFR gene that can lead to decreased activity of this enzyme, which can result in a buildup of unmetabolized folic acid in the blood and lead to a number of health problems.
If you have a MTHFR gene mutation, it's important to get enough folate from natural food sources, instead of relying on folic acid supplements or fortified foods. Because the MTHFR enzyme may not convert folic acid properly, consuming too much folic acid can mask a deficiency of folate.
Folic Acid & Pregnancy
Folate or folic acid is especially important for women of childbearing age, as a deficiency can lead to neural tube defects in developing fetuses. For this reason, many countries have implemented fortification of grain products with folic acid, which is the synthetic form of folate.
It is important to note that, if a woman has a MTHFR gene mutation, folic acid supplementation may not be advised. It is important that expectant mothers consult with their healthcare provider to check homocysteine (an amino acid) levels and to see if they need other forms of folate or other treatments as consuming too much folic acid with the MTHFR gene mutation can increase the risk of neural tube defects in unborn babies.
Due to the fact that many people will not know whether they have the MTHFR gene mutation, it's important to discuss your needs with your health professional and get enough folate from natural food sources, instead of relying on folic acid supplements or fortified foods.
Eating a variety of healthy whole foods as outlined above is an easy way to increase your folate intake. Liver from beef, chicken, and pork are some of the best sources of folate from animals with dark leafy green vegetables offering the highest concentrations from plants.