Wondering why there are two terms for what seems like the same nutrient? You’re far from alone in your confusion. Folate and folic acid often pop up in conversations about healthy pregnancies. Both are forms of a crucial B-vitamin, but there are differences and those differences matter.
Don’t worry, I’m about to clear up the confusion between folate and folic acid. I’m diving into what each of these nutrients is, where they come from, and how your body uses them so you’ll have a better understanding and feel more confident in making your decision between the two.
So, if you’re committed to making the best nutritional choices for yourself and your little one, read on. This guide will help you learn what’s what, so you can focus on what really matters: nourishing your body and nurturing your baby without the extra stress of navigating conflicting information.
What is Folate?
Folate is a form of vitamin B9 that naturally occurs in a variety of foods like spinach and kale, fruits such as oranges and bananas, and even legumes like lentils and chickpeas.
Your body puts folate to work in multiple ways. One of the most important roles it plays is in the formation of DNA and RNA, the genetic material that serves as the building blocks of life. It’s also necessary for the division of cells, especially important if you’re growing a new life inside you.
Now, let’s talk about why folate is particularly important during specific stages of life: preconception, pregnancy, and postpartum. For starters, adequate folate levels are crucial for preventing neural tube defects (NTDs) in babies. These are severe congenital disabilities that affect the spinal cord and brain, occurring within the first month of pregnancy, often before you even realize you’re pregnant. But folate’s job doesn’t end there. It continues to support your health, helping to ward off anemia, improve mood regulation, and even stabilize blood sugar levels.
What is Folic Acid?
Folic acid is the synthetic version of folate. It was initially created to fortify foods and offer a stable, longer lasting alternative to natural folate. You’ll frequently find it added to cereals, pastas, and bread. Basically, items that have a longer shelf life and are part of the ultra-processed food landscape. Folic acid isn’t inherently bad, but its synthetic nature comes with a set of concerns you should be aware of.
Firstly, unlike its natural counterpart, folic acid has to undergo additional steps to be converted into a form that your body can actually use. If you’re consuming a lot of folic acid, this can lead to a build-up of unmetabolized folic acid in your bloodstream. While the full implications of this are still under study, it’s a red flag you don’t have to worry about with natural folate.
Another issue with folic acid’s synthetic nature is where you’re likely to find it: ultra-processed foods. While it’s great that these products are fortified to help people meet their nutrient needs, the high sugar and low fiber content of such foods can offset the benefits. When you’re planning for a baby, already pregnant, or nurturing a newborn, the quality of your nutrition is non-negotiable. These ultra-processed foods often come with additives, preservatives, and lack essential nutrients, which are not what you want in your daily diet.
Folic acid is the go-to for food manufacturers and some supplement makers because it’s stable and cheap. Being synthetic, it demands more from your body to be usable, and its prevalence in ultra-processed foods makes it a double-edged sword.
Key Differences Between Folate and Folic Acid
Folate is found naturally in a variety of foods, primarily leafy greens, fruits, and legumes. Folic acid, on the other hand, is man-made and typically added to processed foods and some supplements.
Folate is easily utilized by your body because it’s already in a bioavailable form. Folic acid needs to be converted into a usable form, a process that mainly happens in the liver. This extra step makes it much harder for your body to absorb it, especially for those with the MTHFR gene mutation.
Risk of Excess
With folate, the risk of consuming too much is generally low because it’s water-soluble and excess amounts are usually flushed out of the body. Folic acid, due to its synthetic nature and slower metabolism, can accumulate in the body, potentially leading to health concerns that are still being studied.
Folate and Neural Tube Defects
Studies have repeatedly demonstrated the significance of folate in preventing neural tube defects (NTDs). In fact, research suggests that adequate folate intake starting at least a month before conception and continuing through the first trimester can reduce the risk of NTDs by up to 70%.
Folic Acid and Potential Risks
On the other side of the spectrum, the issue of unmetabolized folic acid accumulating in the bloodstream has come under scrutiny. Some studies have raised concerns about potential links to certain cancers and cognitive issues, although the evidence is not yet conclusive.
Folate vs. Folic Acid in Pregnancy
Many take prenatal or regular supplements that contain either folate or folic acid. Knowing the difference empowers you to make a more informed choice. You can specifically look for supplements that contain the ‘methylated’ form of folate, methyltetrahydrofolate (sometimes listed on labels as MTHF, 5-MTHF, L-5-MTHF, or 6S-5-MTHF). which is closer to the natural form and easier for the body to convert and use.
Not all prenatals are the same. Some are better quality than others. The supplements I personally use that contain the methylated form of Folate are the Needed Prenatal Multi. I’ve continued to take them well into my postpartum period while I still breastfeed. There are no unnecessary fillers and minerals and vitamins found in the Prenatal Multi are sourced from quality ingredients.
Label Reading: Know What You’re Getting
Check the Ingredients List
Before you even glance at the nutrition label, make your first stop the ingredients list. If you see “folic acid” listed, know that you’re getting the synthetic form. If you see terms like “folate” or “5-MTHF,” you’re looking at a product that contains the more bioavailable, natural form of vitamin B9.
Watch for Fortified Foods
Commonly fortified foods like breakfast cereals, bread, and pasta will often use folic acid because it’s cheaper and has a longer shelf life. Don’t be swayed just because the box screams “fortified with essential nutrients!” Understand that this usually means folic acid, not natural folate. These foods are ultra processed and should not make up the majority of your diet or be your only source of vitamins & minerals.
Prenatal and Multivitamin Supplements
This is crucial if you’re planning a pregnancy or already expecting. Many over-the-counter prenatal vitamins contain folic acid instead of natural folate. So read those labels and look for “methylfolate” or “5-MTHF” if you want the natural form that’s easier for your body to utilize.
Believe it or not, folic acid can also be found in energy drinks, meal replacement shakes, and even some snack bars. Learning to read labels will help you know exactly what you’re putting into your body.
Now you should have a better understanding of the differences between folate and folic acid. The type of vitamin B9 you choose can have a direct impact on your health, especially if you’re in a the chapter of life of trying to conceive, pregnancy, or postpartum. And even if those life stages are not in your immediate plans, the choice still matters for your overall well-being.
So, the next time you reach for a supplement or a fortified food, take a moment to consider what’s actually inside. Arm yourself with knowledge, make informed choices, and don’t be shy about sharing what you’ve learned.
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