When I was pregnant with Dominik, one of the first things that my doctor brought up to me was the importance of taking a vitamin that contained folic acid. And so, every morning I would dutifully take my prenatal vitamin. It gave me a sense of relief that I didn’t have to worry about the fact that anything that was not bread was unpalatable. But what is folic acid? Why do we need it? Do only pregnant women need it? What’s the difference between folic acid and folate?
Let’s start with the basics. Folic acid and folate are both vitamin B-9, but folic acid is the synthetic version and folate is the kind found in foods. It is a water soluble vitamin. This means that when you eat it, it dissolves and the body absorbs what it needs, and the rest is flushed out with urine. This is why this vitamin is continuously needed by the body. It works like many other vitamins, it has a role to play in keeping your cells working properly as well as aiding in the formation of red blood cells.
Most people do not need a supplement and get enough through their diet. But pregnant women have a need for more. In pregnant women, folate has been shown to significantly decrease the chances of a neural tube defect like spina bifida. Because these defects begin in very early pregnancy, when the spinal cord and brain are forming, it is very important that the mother have an adequate intake of folate just before and during early pregnancy. That’s why it’s recommended for women who are trying to conceive to take a prenatal vitamin, even before conception.
Starting in the late 1990’s, when this information about folate and pregnancy came out, it was mandated that certain foods be fortified with folic acid, the synthetic version. This is why you see folic acid included in the ingredients on many processed cereals and other flour based products. The goal was to make sure that all child bearing women were eating enough folic acid every day. Also, nearly every supplement that contains vitamin b-9, contains folic acid, the synthetic version.
Like other synthetic vitamins, the human body has both a harder time breaking them down as well as a harder time recognizing them. In whole foods, vitamins work together. For example, vitamin c enhances the absorption of iron in the body. These vitamins in their natural state are recognizable to the body and our systems know how to break them down and use them. But synthetic vitamins are foreign to our bodies. Most of the time, they are just flushed down the toilet as our bodies have trouble breaking them down, especially in the very high amounts found in supplements.
Folic acid, because it is synthetic, is processed differently by the body. The body treats it like any other synthetic medication and uses the liver to break it down. New studies are beginning to show that this is leaving too much unprocessed folic acid in the body and some researchers believe this to be a cancer risk. Lots needs to be done to determine this, of course, but nevertheless the use of synthetics within the body does not ever seem to be a good idea. Time and time again, sources of nutrition that are closer to their original natural state are shown to be better overall.
Many natural, whole foods supplements make vitamins that contain folate instead of folic acid, like New Chapter. But if supplements with folic acid are the only available or the only within your means, then it is of course better than nothing at all, especially if you are pregnant.
But the absolute best way to get folate? Through a diet rich in foods like these:
Read those labels and see if you notice folic acid or folate.