Folate vs. Folic Acid for Pregnancy: What you need to know

Folate vs. Folic Acid for Pregnancy: What you need to know

“Make sure you have enough folic acid for pregnancy.” This is pretty standard advice these days with doctors recommending all women of child bearing age to get enough folic acid in their diet since it’s important even before conception. For any woman trying to get pregnant, the thought of neural tube defects (NTD) is enough motivation to be super diligent about taking prenatal supplements with plenty of folic acid. 

But do you know the difference between folate and folic acid? The words ‘folate’ and ‘folic acid’ are often used interchangeably but there are important differences between them.

Folate vs. Folic Acid

Folate is the naturally-occurring form of the vitamin. It’s found in foods like liver, spinach, lentils, and garbanzo beans.

Folic acid is the synthetic form of the vitamin that is used in most supplements and in fortified foods. (Think “enriched.”)

Here’s the technical nitty gritty: Folate is a general term for a group of water soluble b-vitamins, and is also known as B9. Folic acid refers to the oxidized synthetic compound used in dietary supplements and food fortification, whereas folate refers to the various tetrahydrofolate derivatives naturally found in food. (source)

Now, if you’re familiar with my ideas on health you can probably guess where this is headed, right? My journey toward real health has been about getting back to basics… back to nature. It’s about living a more real life and a less synthetic one. That’s not to say that I don’t think there are instances where our modern world (including the technology, practices, or synthetic approaches to health) aren’t necessary, but I prefer to use them as a last resort.

That’s why I think folate is more important than folic acid for pregnancy.

Folate Vs. Folic Acid for Pregnancy: Which is better?

Folate vs. Folic Acid for Pregnancy: A must read!

Many processed foods like cereals are fortified with folic acid. This mandatory food fortification came about in 1998 with the overwhelming evidence that folic acid before conception and during early pregnancy helped protect newborns for neural tube defects.

But here’s the thing: Several studies have reported the presence of unmetabolized folic acid in the blood following the consumption of folic acid supplements or fortified foods. In fact, human exposure to folic acid was non-existent until it was chemically synthesized in the 1940′s. (source)

So why the unnatural levels of unmetabolized folic acid? According to Chris Kresser:

The form of folate that can enter the main folate metabolic cycle is tetrahydrofolate (THF). Unlike natural folates, which are metabolized to THF in the mucosa of the small intestine, folic acid undergoes initial reduction and methylation in the liver, where conversion to the THF form requires dihydrofolate reductase. The low activity of this enzyme in the human liver, combined with a high intake of folic acid, may result in unnatural levels of unmetabolized folic acid entering the systemic circulation.

So what does this excessive folic acid lead to?

While there is still plenty of research to be done on the subject, researchers have hypothesized that this excessive amount of folic acid may be directly related to the increase in cancer rates (source).  There is especially concern for men and older women who may have excessive amounts of folic acid.

That’s not to say that we should ignore the doctor’s recommendations for folic acid for pregnancy… or should I say folate for pregnancy. Despite the risks associated with high levels of folic acid intake, having adequate folate in your diet is essential. That’s why it is important to know the difference between folate and it’s synthetic counterpart.

Folate is important to your health because it:

  • Aids the complete development of red blood cells
  • Supports the nervous system
  • Prevents neural tube defects in newborns

So instead of folic acid for pregnancy, look for folate… the honest-to-goodness natural vitamins found in real food. Once again, nature trumps man. Way to go nature!

Folate vs. Folic Acid for Pregnancy: A must read!

Best food sources for folate

Not sure where to get folate? The best way is to eat a variety of foods… real food. Here are 10 good sources of natural folate:

  1. 1/4 cup peanuts: 207 mcg
  2. 3 oz. beef liver: 185 mcg
  3. 1/2 cup garbanzo beans: 134 mcg
  4. 1 cup navy beans: 129 mcg
  5. 1/2 cup pinto beans: 117 mcg
  6. 1/2 cup lentils, split peas, black beans, or kidney beans: 114 mcg
  7. 1/2 cup black-eyed peas: 105 mcg
  8. 1/2 cup cooked spinach: 100 mcg
  9. 1/2 cup corn: 88 mcg
  10. 4 spears of asparagus: 85 mcg

But keep in mind:

Even though folate is the natural form of the vitamin, folic acid is actually better absorbed by the body. This is why it’s important to ensure you’re eating the right foods, and plenty of them. This is especially true if you are planning to get (or already are) pregnant.

And while there are mixed opinions on the use of supplements, I personally think it’s a good idea to have quality supplements on hand. Just keep in mind that they should be supplemental... not substitutes for a real foods diet.

What to look for in a supplement

Avoid products that say “folic acid” on the label. Most health food stores will have quality brands of prenatal and multi-vitamins that have folate instead of folic acid. If choosing to supplement look for organic to avoid GMOs. If you take a multi-vitamin make sure to check the label because most multi-viatmins contain folic acid and not folate. You can find quality supplements in the Village Green Marketplace.

How much folate should I take?

Women planning on becoming pregnant should consume between 800 and 1200 mcg of folate per day for several months before the start of pregnancy. Unless you’re consuming chicken or beef liver and substantial amounts of leafy greens on a regular basis, it’s difficult to obtain this amount from diet alone (just another reason to start eating your liver!).

If you’re pregnant or trying to get pregnant, you may want to supplement with 600-800 mcg of folate per day, depending on your dietary intake. Keep in mind that the recommendations for folate is more than folic acid since it’s not as easily absorbed.

All other people, such as men and older women, should be able to get plenty of folate in a diet with adequate vegetable consumption, and do not need to supplement.

So… folic acid for pregnancy? Or Folate? What do you think?

Additional Sources:
http://www.webmd.com/baby/folic-acid-and-pregnancy
http://nutritionovereasy.com/2011/01/folate-vs-folic-acid-whats-the-difference/
http://chriskresser.com/folate-vs-folic-acid
http://www.fitsugar.com/10-Sources-Folate-2944377
http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=1343280

This post is part of Motivation MondayMonday ManiaClever ChicksSweet Sharing Monday, Fat Tuesday, Scratch Cookin’ Tuesday, The Mommy ClubWow Me WednesdayFrugal Days Sustainable WaysHealthy 2Day, Real Food Wednesday, and Sunday School.

NOTE: Due to an never-ending cesspool of spam, I have made the tough decision to close comments 14 days after the original posting of all posts. If you have a burning question or are looking for support in your journey to healthy living, please join the Thank Your Body Friends facebook page here.


STANDARD FTC DISCLOSURE: In order for me to support my blogging activities, I may receive monetary compensation or other types of remuneration for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial and/or link to any products or services from this blog. Please note, I only ever endorse products that are in alignment with Thank Your Body's ideals and I believe would be of value to my readers. You may read my full disclosure statements here.

About the author

Hi! I'm and I’m passionate about healthy living: feeling nourished, having energy, getting good sleep, and feeling strong. I believe healthy living does not have to be complicated or stressful. I’m a Registered Somatic Movement Therapist (RSMT) and a Certified Laban/Bartenieff Movement Analyst (CLMA). I’m also an avid researcher and love to read about nutrition, the body, and toxic-free living. Learn more.

View all articles by Robin Konie

30 comments


    1. Post author
      robin

      That’s a great question, Barb! It’s hard to say because so many reports use folic acid and folate interchangeably. Vitamin C is supposed to help with folic acid absorption, but I have yet to be able to find if that’s true for folate. The good news: A recent study shows that absorption of folate is actually better than first suspected (about 78% according to this: http://www.eufic.org/page/en/show/latest-science-news/fftid/food-folate/) And since folic acid doesn’t fully metabolize, I’d definitely stick with the natural stuff. My guess is that the foods that contain folate also contain other vitamins that help with absorption.

  1. Carly

    Yes! I have been reading A LOT about this lately. There is actually a very common genetic problem (MTHFR mutation) that causes problems with the body’s ability to absorb folic acid. This might explain why some people seem to have more problems with this than others. I suspect that this runs in my family. My son was born with 2 midline defects (sacral dimple and tongue tie) which are pre-cursors to spina bifida. This was cause by lack of B vitamins in early pregnancy. I delved more into the real foods/natural lifestyle after he was born and my second child did not have any of these problems. I have been looking into a natural folate supplement, but have’t found one I like yet.


    1. Post author
      robin

      I didn’t know about that genetic problem… so interesting. Sorry you’ve had to deal with some of the struggles of it. I’m glad you in a better place now. Thanks for stopping by!

    2. Paige @ Not Missing a Thing!

      You can find a lot of info on MTHFR mutation on seekinghealth.com. I have this mutation and have found the info and supplements on that website very useful. They have the folic acid in the already-broken-down state that those with MTHFR mutations need. You can contact me through my blog if you’d like more info.

    3. Lindsay

      I have had two children, both of which have had tongue tie and an immature gut which causes them to cry all day and cry when I feed them. I’m trying to switch to a healthy lifestyle. I would love to learn more about where you got your information from. Thank you.

  2. Paige @ Not Missing a Thing!

    Yes, about 40% of the population has a mutation with the MTHFR gene, including myself, my husband and all three children. It affects a persons ability to use folic acid as well as B12. Although its not a simple issue, the simple version of the way it should be handled is NEVER taking regular folic acid, but instead taking it in its methylated form – methyltetrahydrofolate. You can read more info at http://www.seekinghealth.com.

  3. Myriam

    It’s bad that most folate sources are found in legumes and peanuts. What about people who are allergic to those (like me)? Substitutes are then a good idea, but how to balance between natural and synthetic sources of folate/folic acid in such case?


    1. Post author
      robin

      You can find supplements that have folate instead of folic acid. Liver is also a great source of natural folate… assuming you do animal products. :)

  4. PattyLA

    Even better than peanuts are duck and goose liver for folate. They are powerhouses! We all have MTHFR mutations in my family so getting the right source of folate is very important.
    There is some research that says that since folic acid is more easily absorbed it will actually block your ability to absorb folate from your food (if eaten together in the same meal) and if you have a MTHFR mutation that is bad news since you won’t be able to turn that folic acid into folate. It is also suggested that the unconverted folic acid clogs up receptors and blocks the needed folate from it’s job in the body. We avoid it completely here.


    1. Post author
      robin

      Yes! Liver is amazing.

      I’m so glad we’ve had so many responses regarding the MTHFR mutation. This is so important. Thank you for sharing your input. So valuable.

  5. Pingback: Why you should eat liver. (And how you can get over the "ick" factor).


    1. Post author
      robin

      I’d maybe look for a different brand once this one is empty.

      As far as DHA, I think those fatty acids are super important, but best if we can get them from food. We try to eat fish at least once or twice a week.

  6. Pingback: Kristine Rudolph » Explore More : November 28th

  7. Rachel K.

    http://www.drfuhrman.com/library/folic_acid_dangers_and_prenatal_vitamins.aspx

    I appreciated your article, Robin, as I had recently read the one above and thought it very interesting that the difference between folic acid and folate is never mentioned by prenatal caregivers. Obviously there are many studies with varying results, but I think one thing is for sure…it is always best to consume something in it’s natural form. I also take the Vitamin Code Raw Prenatal (as you have pictured) and have been very happy with it.


    1. Post author
      robin

      Thanks for the link, Rachel. I agree… there is so much conflicting information out there, but in general, I trust God and his natural approach. :)

  8. Andy

    Hi,
    I also have the MTHFR gene defect. My doctor told me to take Folinic Acid, which is the activated form of folic acid. It bypasses the MTHFR defect.

  9. Christy

    I was also recently diagnosed with the MTHFR mutation, and my children are about to be tested (one has a tongue tie). I just wanted to add that women who have the mutation are also more likely to miscarry if they take regular prenatal vitamins because of the levels of folic acid in their bodies. It can become toxic to them. And since up to 45% of the population may have some sort of MTHFR mutation, it’s safer to go for a supplement that does not have folic acid!

  10. MaryAnn

    I take the vitamin code raw prenatal as well. Not only because of this issue but because it is 100 times easier on my stomach than the main brand ones I tried from the drugstore. I’m very happy with it as well. I have been afraid to eat liver due to the high levels of vitamin A :/


    1. Post author
      Robin Konie

      I would’t worry about eating liver as most of the research done about vitamin A and pregnancy has been with synthetic versions. Liver has always been a traditionally used food during pregnancy. But of course, if you don’t LIKE liver, don’t sweat it. :)

      1. Birkha

        i’ve been taking folic acid for the last 3 months. recently i’d visited another doctor and when i told him that am expecting, he gave me several vit and folate as a supplements. He insisted me to stop consuming the folic acid and start on the new set. what say u Robin?


        1. Post author
          Robin Konie

          Sounds like you have a smart doctor. I’d definitely take folate over folic acid.

  11. Pingback: My Personal Pregnancy Diet: Part I - Wildheart Farm

  12. Dayna

    Hey! I know these posts are a little old but I’m hoping you’ll respond. I’m looking for a great organic prenatal, but reading some bad things about vitamin A & E during pregnancy, I am starting to think I might forget the prenatal and maybe just go with a folate supplement to go along with the greens I eat.. to make sure I’m getting enough daily, plus the Nordic naturals DHA supplement (can’t really stand fish). What are your thoughts on doing that instead of a prenatal? Even the vitamin code prenatal has me a little worried regarding vitamins A & E, though the levels don’t seem too high.. Ahhh I’m just nervous since there seems to be no perfect prenatal. need to trust God, but want to make the most informed and healthy decision. Did you take the Raw vitamin code? Thanks!


    1. Post author
      Robin Konie

      Hi Dayna,

      I totally understand where you are coming from. I did (and still do) have the Raw vitamin code in my cupboard, but I wasn’t diligent about taking it daily. I probably took it about 70% of the time. I wouldn’t stress too much about too high of levels of A and E, as these supplements probably aren’t high enough for concern, and your body probably won’t absorb it all anyway. I found the best thing was to eat as well as I could, supplement as felt necessary, and try not to stress too much about it. (And trusting God is definitely the best.) :)

Comments are closed.