Folate vs. Folic Acid: Differences, Benefits, and More

by Gaby Vaca-Flores, RDN, CLE · July 25, 2022
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You’re not alone if you’ve ever been tongue-tied over the terms folate and folic acid. Here, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the differences between folate and folic acid, the benefits of the vitamin, and whether folic acid or folate for pregnancy is ideal.

Is Folate the Same as Folic Acid?

Folate and folic acid are similar, but are not the same thing. Folate is the naturally occurring form of vitamin B9 whereas folic acid is a synthetic form. 

Folate vs Folic Acid

There are several forms of vitamin B9. Folate and folic acid are the most common. 

What is Folate?

Folate is the naturally occurring form of the water-soluble vitamin B9. In fact, it’s one of the 13 essential vitamins. The body counts on folate for a variety of important functions, such as DNA production and cell division. 

Folate is sometimes called dietary folate because it’s found in many plant and animal foods.

What is Folic Acid?

Folic acid is a synthetic form of vitamin B9. Usually, folic acid is found in multivitamins, prenatal vitamins, and B-complex supplements

Folic acid is also present in enriched foods that are fortified with vitamins and minerals. During processing, wheat products lose folate and other components of the grain. To replace what is lost, they are fortified with folic acid. In fact, people consume about 140 micrograms of folic acid daily from enriched foods in America. 

Folate Benefits

The body relies on folate in different ways. For example, folate is involved with the production of DNA, protein, and neurotransmitters. It also helps with cell function and red blood cell formation. 

Folate also plays a role in brain and mental health. According to a recent meta-analysis, consuming enough folate can help protect against age-related cognitive disorders. Consequently, low folate levels (even slightly low) can increase your risk for cognitive impairment. 

Because folate plays a role in producing neurotransmitters, low folate levels can also increase the risk for mental health disorders. As such, folic acid supplementation can help ease symptoms of common mental conditions, according to a 2022 meta-analysis.

Moreover, one of folate’s most well-known benefits is its role in promoting a healthy pregnancy. Consuming adequate amounts of folate can help prevent neural tube defects in babies – especially when consumed during the early stages of pregnancy. And since nearly half of all pregnancies are unplanned, enriched foods can help boost folic acid intake until a prenatal regimen is in order. 

Foods High in Folate

The body can’t produce folate on its own. As such, getting folate and folic acid from dietary sources is essential. Fortunately, many foods contain vitamin B9 in both its natural and synthetic forms. 

Here’s a list of the top foods containing folate: 

  • Asparagus
  • Avocado
  • Beans
  • Brussels sprouts 
  • Beef liver 
  • Citrus fruit 
  • Eggs
  • Kale
  • Peas
  • Spinach

Additionally, here’s a list of foods that are commonly enriched with folic acid: 

folate foods

Although this B vitamin is widely available, there’s no clear consensus as to how much folate humans are actually able to absorb from (non-enriched) food. Experts predict that folate bioavailability can vary between 30 percent and 98 percent. It is worth noting that this variability largely comes from studies using inconsistent methods to measure its absorption. 

Nevertheless, folate deficiency is rare in the US. The Recommended Daily Allowance for folate is 400 mcg DFE (dietary folate equivalents) for adults. However, some groups, such as pregnant and breastfeeding women, require higher amounts.

Folic Acid or Folate for Pregnancy?

Folate needs increase during pregnancy to 600 mcg DFE daily. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that pregnant and postpartum women take a prenatal supplement to help them meet their folate and other nutrient requirements.

Here’s where things can get tricky. Many people cannot properly absorb folate or folic acid. About 1 in 3 Americans have the MTHFR gene mutation, 25 percent of which are Hispanic and 10 percent are Caucasian and Asian. People with the MTHFR gene mutation are unable to convert folate and folic acid into their active or ready-to-use form.

Some researchers also suspect that an estimated 60 percent of people can only partially metabolize folate. Both folate and folic acid are inactive forms of vitamin B9 that require activation once consumed through diet or supplementation. 

Most pregnant women do not know if they have this gene mutation. This can make it difficult to determine if you are actually getting enough folate and folic acid from your diet and prenatal supplement

folate or folic acid pregnancy

There is evidence that women with the gene mutation can still benefit from folic acid supplementation. But according to newer research, there are advantages to supplementing directly with the active form of folate (methyl folate) as this is better absorbed and utilized by the body.

It’s also been suggested that supplementing with methyl folate can help ease some of the common concerns linked to folic acid supplementation such as B12 deficiency masking and folic acid accumulation in the blood. 

What is Methyl Folate?

Methyl folate, or 5-MTHF, is the main form of folate found in the blood. It’s considered an active form of folate meaning it’s immediately ready to be used in the body.

HUM Nutrition’s Womb Service prenatal multivitamin is made with 800 mcg of methylated folate for easy absorption.

The Takeaway

Remember, folate and folic acid are not the same things. Folate is the dietary form of vitamin B9 and the latter is the synthetic form. It is also the most important B vitamin during pregnancy because it prevents neural tube defects. If you’re on the hunt for a prenatal supplement, look for methylated folate or 5-MTHF on the label so your body can more easily absorb it. Even those who are not pregnant may still benefit from taking methylated folate.


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