Folic acid vs. folate
You’ve heard a lot about the importance of folic acid. Recently, a pregnant woman wrote to us and asked exactly what she would need to eat in order to get all her folic acid needs from food instead of a vitamin. Good question…complicated answer.
The first thing you need to know is that the natural form of folic acid is called folate. Folate is found in lentils, spinach, black beans, peanuts, oranges and orange juice, legumes, romaine lettuce, leafy green veggies and broccoli. But, you have to eat a lot of these foods to get the right amount of folic acid (400 mcg per day). Cooking and storage can destroy folate, so even if you have the best intentions, your plans may be foiled. To make matters worse, according to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), your body only absorbs about 50 % of folate from food. Not much!
Fortunately, there is a way around having to eat tons of lentils and broccoli every day. The manufactured or synthetic form of folate is called folic acid. Many grain products in the United States are fortified with folic acid (meaning folic acid is added to them). The best part of this is that your body actually absorbs folic acid better than it absorbs folate. In fact, your body absorbs approximately 85% percent of the folic acid in fortified foods and 100% of the folic acid in a vitamin supplement. (I like these numbers a lot more!) That is a whole lot more than only 50% your body absorbs from foods with folate.
So where can you find these fortified foods? Enriched is the magic word. Enriched flour, rice, pasta, bread and cereals are examples of fortified grain products. You can check the label to see if a product is enriched and to see how much folic acid each serving contains.
Here’s even better news…Many studies have shown that the synthetic form of folic acid helps prevent NTDs (neural tube defects) – a kind of birth defect. This is why the IOM, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the March of Dimes recommend that all women of childbearing age consume at least 400 micrograms a day of the synthetic form of folic acid.
A simple solution…
You can eat a serving of fortified cereal that contains 100% of the daily value of folic acid every day. Or…(drumroll please…) you can pop a vitamin. Of course, a healthy diet is very important, but taking a daily multivitamin that contains at least 400 mcg of folic acid (or at least 600 mcg if you are pregnant) is key in ensuring that you are getting and absorbing the folic acid that your body needs – whether you are planning on getting pregnant or not. It really couldn’t be easier.
Updated January 2016