Folic acid or folate is a vitamin that’s often prescribed to pregnant women. Are they the same? If not, what are their effects on the body?
Folic Acid Vs. Folate
No, folic acid and folate are not the same, even though many health care professionals use them interchangeably. Both are forms of the vitamin B9, which is one of the vitamins that target nerve health.
Folate is the form of vitamin B9 that’s commonly found in foods such as beans, leafy greens, eggs, avocados, citrus fruits, and organ meats like beef liver. Folic acid is the synthesized form of vitamin B9, and the one commonly added in processed foods or used in supplements.
How are They Different?
Folic acid’s molecular structure is different from folate’s. It’s a small difference, but something that can cause inefficiency to some people.
Folic acid, in its own, can’t be used by the body right away. The body needs to convert it twice; first, to DHF or dihydrofolate, and then to THF or tetrahydrofolate. Finally, THF is converted to L-methylfolate. This methylated folic acid is the form that the body uses in many of its important functions.
The Problem with Folic Acid
Folic acid is an effective supplement. Converted efficiently, it can be absorbed by the body similarly as folate. However, it was found in a 2011 study that around 60% of Americans can’t convert folic acid fully.
Some genetic differences in many Americans make the 60% unable to convert folic acid efficiently. If these people take in folic acid supplements, the amount of L-methylfolate their body converts from the folic acid will vary. It will also mean that there will be traces of unconverted folic acid in their bodies.
What are the Risks?
Excessive folic acid intake can damage the liver. The excess, unconverted folic acid can also enter the bloodstream.
Several studies show that excess folic acid intake is harmful to the body. A 2012 study found that it can increase the risk for prostate cancer. An older study also found that excess folic acid intake can cause cognitive decline in older adults.
Should You Take Folic Acid or Folate Supplements?
The effects of excessive folic acid are scary, but so are the effects of folic acid deficiency. Folic acid deficiency is a major cause of neural tube defects in newborns. It’s the reason why the FDA required common foods like breads, flour, and cereals to be enriched and fortified with folic acid.
That being said, the best way to make sure that you’re getting your daily requirement is to eat a variety of folate – rich foods. Folate is readily available in many foods, and is easier to convert in the body.
For a quick recap watch the video below.