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folate and folic acid

Dr. Adrian Weingart

folate and folic acid

This blog article is all about folate - and folic acid! Have you heard either of these terms before? And do you know the difference? We clarify!

What is folate?

Let's start with folate. Folate is a natural water-soluble B-group vitamin. What water-soluble vitamins have in common is that the body cannot store them, so if there is an excess, they are excreted directly in the urine.
One also speaks of "folate equivalents", since folate occurs in different natural forms.

What do I need folate for?

Folate is relevant for a whole range of things: Above all, for all processes in the body that have to do with growth and development. Specifically, this means that folate is involved in the formation of new elements for the genetic material deoxyribonucleic acid - DNA for short. In addition, folate is required for amino acid synthesis. Amino acids are building blocks of proteins, also known as proteins, which in turn serve as building blocks for body cells, hormones and enzymes. That's why folate is particularly important for pregnant women and those who want to become pregnant - but more on that below. On top of that, folate contributes to the normal functioning of the immune system, the reduction of tiredness and fatigue, and normal blood formation. So a real multi-tasker!

What does folate contain?

Folate is mainly found in vegetables and fruit. For example in spinach, cabbage, lettuce and kale, in citrus fruits, bananas, legumes, but also in milk and eggs and whole grains.

And then what is folic acid?

Now to folic acid. Folic acid is a synthetic form of the vitamin that can only be produced in the laboratory and does not occur naturally. You are now wondering why there is an artificial version of a vitamin that is also available naturally? In fact, it has several properties that make it more attractive to humans and the food industry than "dietary folate": Folic acid is more stable, meaning it has greater resistance to external agents such as light, heat and oxygen. In addition, folic acid has a higher bioavailability than natural folate. This means that folic acid is available to the system and bloodstream in an unchanged form in higher concentrations than folate.

You can also see this by calculating the sum of folate-effective compounds in normal food: 1 μg folate equivalent = 1 μg dietary folate = 0.5 μg synthetic folic acid.

So folic acid can be almost 100% utilized by the body when taken on an empty stomach. That's why the synthetic version is added to foods and vitamin supplements that you can then buy. This is done because the adult population often falls below the recommended daily intake (more on this below).
In the EU, folic acid is not added directly to foods, but in more than 50 countries around the world, such as the USA, it is added to products such as flour to counteract or directly prevent folate deficiency in the population.

How much folate does the body need?

For non-pregnant adults, a daily requirement of 300 µg folate equivalent is recommended. For infants and children under the age of 12, the German consumer advice center recommends a daily dose adapted to their age. If you would like more information on this, you can find scientific information on the website of the consumer advice center or the German Society for Nutrition.

What happens with a folate deficiency?

In fact, according to a nationwide study by the Federal Research Institute for Nutrition and Food, folate is one of the few nutrients with which the population does not have an adequate supply. The supply of folate decreases with increasing age in particular, but the median is already insufficient at a young age. If the body lacks folate, the consequences are primarily the processes of cell division and growth. If a disorder occurs here, it can result in anemia. This is also referred to as anemia. In addition, there can be complications in DNA synthesis and, as a result, problems in cell division. You can feel this mainly through problems in the digestive tract.

Folate when trying to have children and at the beginning of pregnancy

Folate is the most studied vitamin for pregnant women. This is because it contributes to the growth of maternal tissues during pregnancy. Especially for women who are trying to get pregnant and for pregnant women in the early stages, it is therefore recommended to ensure an adequate intake of folate through their diet and, if necessary, to supplement it with dietary supplements, because a higher dose is recommended here than for other adults. The consumer advice center and other institutes and authorities give a guide value of 400 µg per day. A folate deficiency during this time can lead to malformations in the fetus. One speaks here of the so-called neural tube defect, which affects the brain and spinal cord of children. To counteract this, an adequate supply of folic acid is very important.
It is recommended to maintain the increased intake of 400 µg per day at least 4 weeks before the start of pregnancy and to keep it constant during the first trimester of pregnancy.

What should you take away from this blog post?

  1. Folate and folic acid are not the same: folate is the naturally occurring vitamin, folic acid is the synthetic product. They have only partially identical properties.
  2. For non-pregnant adults, a daily intake of 300 micrograms of folate µg equivalents is recommended.
  3. The German population tends to have an insufficient folate supply. So make sure you include plenty of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains in your diet.
  4. If you would like to become pregnant or are already pregnant, then pay particular attention to your folate supply. Talk to your doctor and check whether you should supplement with dietary supplements.


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