Folate vs. folic acid
We need an adequate intake of various nutrients including vitamins for our optimal health. There are various types of vitamins, and vitamin B9 is one of them.
Folate and folic acid are two forms of vitamin B9. The terms folate and folic acid are often used interchangeably; however, they are not synonymous, as discussed later in this article.
Being two forms of the same vitamin, both folate and folic acid perform similar functions in the body. Thus, determining which of the two is better can be a tricky task.
- Folate, a natural form of vitamin B9, must be preferred over the synthetic form called folic acid. Folates are readily converted to the active form of vitamin B9 in the gut and absorbed by the body for various metabolic purposes. However, folic acid has to be converted to its active form by the liver and other tissues before utilization by the body.
- Folic acid is more heat-stable than natural food folate. Hence, folic acid is a better option for food fortification instead of flour used for bread, pasta, etc.
The process of folic acid absorption involves two main steps. The first step involves the conversion of folic acid to dihydrofolate (DHF) followed by its conversion to tetrahydrofolate (THF). This makes the utilization of folic acid slower than that of dietary folates.
- Furthermore, many people have low levels of the enzyme that converts folic acid to its active form in their bodies. This makes them vulnerable to a buildup of unmetabolized folic acid in the body.
- Excessive unmetabolized folic acid can cause several health issues. Thus, dietary folate is a safer option than folic acid. Nonetheless, if your doctor has prescribed your folic acid for some health conditions, it is safe to consume because your body has an increased need, which may not be met by dietary folate alone.
Additionally, folic acid supplementation is effective in preventing neural tube defects in an unborn child when the expectant mother starts taking it well before her conception.
What is folate?
The term folate is essentially used to describe various naturally occurring forms of vitamin B9. These include dihydrofolate (DHF), tetrahydrofolate (THF), 5, 10-methylenetetrahydrofolate (5, 10-MTHF), and 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF).
Folate is found in food sources, such as
- Green leafy vegetables, such as cabbage, kale, spinach, broccoli, and brussels sprouts
- Legumes, such as beans, peas, and chickpeas
- Citrus fruits and juices
- Sunflower seeds
Folate is essential for several body functions, which include
- Formation of red blood cells (RBCs)
- Formation of the genetic material (DNA and RNA) in the cells
- Cell growth, division, and functioning
- Synthesis and turnover of the protein (helps protein breakdown, use, and production)
- Helps relieve pain and inflammation in the body
- Helps prevent certain birth defects in the developing fetus such as congenital deformities of the brain or spine, including neural tube defects (NTDs such as spina bifida and anencephaly), congenital heart defects, and cleft or cleft palate
The deficiency of folate in the body hampers several important body functions. Symptoms of folate deficiency include
- Reduced appetite
- Mouth ulcers
- Glossitis (swollen tongue)
- Poor growth (in infants and children)
Folate deficiency may occur because of several reasons, such as
- Reduced intake of foods rich in folate or folic acid
- Destruction of folate during cooking because it is heat-sensitive
- Gut disorders interfering with folate absorption such as celiac disease
- Pregnancy because there is increased folate requirement by the growing baby
- Excess alcohol and caffeine consumption
What is folic acid?
Folic acid is the synthetic counterpart of folate. It is used in supplements and fortified foods including pasta, rice, bread, and some breakfast cereals. Folic acid is more heat-stable than folate, making it suitable for food fortification because cooking will not easily destroy it.
Folic acid performs the same functions in the body as folate, and its supplementation helps prevent neural tube defects.
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