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Folate vs. Folic Acid

Overview

When it comes to knowing what important minerals and vitamins you should be getting more of, it’s easy to get confused. In the case of folic acid and folate — terms that are often used interchangeably — you may be surprised to learn just how much these two substances differ.

Folate is also known as vitamin B-9. It is found naturally in foods. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, found in supplements and also added to processed, or "fortified," foods. The term folate is often used to describe both natural and synthetic versions.

Why Do You Need Folate?

Folate is water soluble in any form. This means that it dissolves in water and doesn’t stick around in the body after a portion of what is ingested is absorbed, passing instead through urine. Because of this, you need to continually get folate in your diet to replenish the body’s stores. 

Folate serves a variety of purposes in the body. It helps to keep your cells functioning properly, as well as helping to form your red blood cells and DNA. It can also prevent anemia, heart disease, and birth defects, primarily neural tubal defects. 

How Much Do You Need?

The recommended daily allowance for folate depends on your age and gender, among other things. The amount generally increases by age, although women of childbearing age have the highest requirement levels. 

Children between 1 and 3 years old should get around 150 mcg per day. This should go up to 200 mcg between the ages of 4 and 8, 300 mcg between the ages of 9 and 13, and 400 mcg from 14 onwards. 

Pregnant and lactating women should up this amount to 600 mcg per day, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

What Happens When You Have a Deficiency?

Folate deficiencies are uncommon, according to the NIH. That’s because most people take in enough folate from the foods they eat. People who have a deficiency likely suffer from other issues that prevent their body from absorbing vitamins, like alcoholism or other nutritional deficiencies. 

Signs of a folate deficiency might include:

  • anemia
  • soreness or ulcers on the tongue
  • changes in your hair or skin pigmentation
  • elevated homocysteine levels
  • your baby having birth defects

Should You Take Supplements?

Most people with a generally healthy diet do not need to take folic acid supplements to help meet their folate requirement. However, because pregnant women need to get upwards of 600 mcg per day, experts recommend they take a prenatal vitamin that includes folic acid. 

For the rest of us, it’s simply a matter of eating more of the right foods.

Beans

Lentils, lima beans, and chickpeas are excellent sources of folate. Chickpeas are the main ingredient in everyone’s favorite dip, hummus. And hummus has plenty of other health benefits, including its high-fiber content, which may help lower your "bad" cholesterol levels.

Green Veggies

You can also get your folate fix from asparagus, broccoli, okra, and spinach. Mushrooms and enriched foods (like spaghetti, white rice, and bread) are other good sources of folate, which makes this recipe for an asparagus and shiitake mushroom noodle bowl very convenient!

Juices

Which two fruit juices are absolutely brimming with folate? Orange juice and tomato juice. So feel free to enjoy a Bloody Mary (virgin, of course)!

The Takeaway

Folate is an essential vitamin that you can only get from your diet. Folic acid is a synthetic version that you can buy as a nutritional supplement. Deficiencies are rare, and most people get enough from the right foods. However, pregnant women might want to make sure they’re getting enough by taking a folic acid supplement.


Content licensed from:

Written by: Anna Schaefer
Medically reviewed on: Jul 21, 2015: Peggy Pletcher, MS, RD, LD, CDE

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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