I’m sure there are many of you that lie awake in bed at night pondering this question. Well, okay. Maybe that’s stretching it. Looking further into this question could potentially be the difference between health and sickness. Unfortunately, many doctors and nutritionists throw these two terms, folate and folic acid, around interchangeably. After further comparative analysis you will see there is a significant difference that can have either a beneficial or detrimental impact on your health. Most women are familiar with this vitamin and its role during pregnancy to prevent neural tube defects, spina bifida, cleft lip and cleft palate.

Folate vs. Folic Acid

Folate is a naturally occurring B-vitamin (B9) found in green leafy vegetables, broccoli, asparagus, tomatoes, citrus, lentils, liver and brewer’s and baker’s yeast to name a few. Not only is folate important in preventing birth defects, but is necessary for synthesizing DNA, repairing RNA and helping to form red blood cells.

Folic acid is the synthetic, oxidized version of this vitamin and was first crystallized in 1943. Folic acid does not occur naturally in foods and is only present with fortification and supplementation. The good news-since its introduction into our food system there has been a decrease in neural tube defects. The bad news-folic acid intake has been linked with increased cancer rates, depressed immune function, masking B12 deficiencies and cognitive decline in the elderly.

Why You Should Avoid Folic Acid

Folic acid is unable to be utilized in the cells of your body and must be converted to the active folate form. This conversion mainly occurs in the liver. The problem here is as we age, this conversion slows down considerably. Up to half of our population is unable to efficiently convert folic acid to folate and around 5 percent of our population completely lacks the enzymes to convert folic acid into folate, causing these individuals to be totally unable to utilize folic acid. Any excess oxidized folic acid that hasn’t been converted into folate can now build up in the bloodstream, interfering with metabolism and absorption of natural folate. This has been associated with certain types of cancer. In fact, several countries (including the U.S.) have reported significant increases in colon cancer after fortification with folic acid in the food supply. When cancer cells or precancerous cells are present, this excess oxidized folic acid in our bloodstream has been compared to pouring gas on a fire.

According to Dr. David Smith, Ph.D., folic acid researcher and professor of pharmacology at the University of Oxford in England reports, “The more we learn about folic acid, the more it’s clear that giving it to everyone has very real risks. Unlike folate, folic acid isn’t found in nature, so we don’t know the effect of the excess.”

Where To Find Folate

As with all nutritional issues, it is always best to get your nutrients from whole food sources. When it comes to folate, think about foliage and include as many leafy greens as possible including kale, spinach, romaine, turnip greens and collard greens in addition to the foods mentioned earlier.
Nutritional supplements are an ideal way to make up for vitamins and minerals you may not be getting adequate amounts of in your diet. It is important that these nutrients in your supplements are in a natural form so your body can efficiently utilize them. When choosing the right multivitamin/mineral supplement, be sure to check the label for naturally occurring folate and not synthetic folic acid. In general, most people would benefit from around 200-400 mcg of folate daily. For women who are planning on becoming pregnant, 800-1200 mcg of folate daily for several months before becoming pregnant is recommended. If you are pregnant, 600-800 mcg of folate daily is recommended.
Blood tests are a quick way to determine if your folate levels are within their optimal range. Genetic testing is also available through performing a saliva swab to determine if you are able to produce the enzymes necessary to convert folic acid into folate.