What is Folic Acid?

January 25, 2018 at 9:00 am


Folate and folic acid are forms of a water-soluble B vitamin (B9). Folate occurs naturally in foods and folic acid is the synthetic form of the vitamin.

All B vitamins help the body convert food (carbohydrates) into fuel (glucose), which is used to produce energy. These B vitamins, often referred to as B-complex vitamins, also help the body use fats and protein. B-complex vitamins are needed for a healthy liver, and healthy skin, hair, and eyes. They also help the nervous system function properly. Folic acid is the synthetic form of B9, found in supplements and fortified foods, while folate occurs naturally in foods. Folate also helps to make red blood cells.

Folate Deficiency

Also known as folic acid deficiency anemia, is what happens when you do not consume enough folate or folic acid (vitamin B9). It is fairly common to have low levels of folic acid. Alcoholism, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and celiac disease can cause folic acid deficiency by making it more difficult for the body to absorb folate. Also, certain medications may lower levels of folic acid in the body, and some people may be born with a lack of the ability to absorb folate.

Folic acid deficiency can cause:

  • Poor growth
  • Tongue inflammation
  • Gingivitis
  • Loss of appetite
  • Shortness of breath and/or racing heart
  • Diarrhea
  • Irritability
  • Forgetfulness
  • Mental sluggishness
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Muscle weakness
  • Depression

How much Folic Acid do you Need?

Folate has many important functions in the body and also cannot be stored in the body; which means it is important for everyone to get through folate-rich food and/or supplements each day.

The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) includes the folate you get from both the food you eat and any supplements you take.

Category Folate (Folic Acid)
Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA)
14 years and up 400 micrograms/day
Pregnant women 600 micrograms/day
500 micrograms/day


Where can I get Folate/Folic Acid?

Foods that are naturally high in folate include:

  • Spinach
  • Dark leafy greens
  • Asparagus
  • Turnips
  • Beets
  • Mustard greens
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Lima beans
  • Soybeans
  • Beef liver
  • Brewer’s yeast
  • Root vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Wheat germ
  • Bulgur wheat
  • Kidney beans
  • White beans
  • Lima beans
  • Mung beans
  • Salmon
  • Orange juice
  • Avocado
  • Milk

Since 1998, folic acid has been added to cold cereals, flour, breads, pasta, crackers, and more, as required by federal law.

Folate and Pregnancy

Pregnant women who do not get enough folic acid are more likely to have children with birth defects, which is one of the main reasons folic acid was added to many foods in the food system in 1998.

Pregnant women should get 600 mcg of folic acid per day. Women who plan to become pregnant should make sure to get the recommended 400 mcg per day since many neural tube defects can happen shortly after conception and before a woman even knows she is pregnant. Prenatal vitamins contain the needed amount of folic acid for pregnant women.


Folate and Heart Disease

Folate may help protect the heart through several methods. First, there is some evidence that getting enough folic acid in your diet can reduce your risk of heart disease, although this evidence is based on population studies and not more definitive clinical trials. There is not yet any evidence that taking folic acid supplements would help.

Most people who are should focus on getting enough B vitamins from healthy foods.

If you are concerned about folate deficiency, focus on getting enough folate and folic acid from foods, and ask your doctor and registered dietitian whether taking a supplement is right for you.

About the Author

Felicia Newell is a Registered Dietitian (RD), Nutritionist, and Health Coach. She is also the owner of Sustain Nutrition, and helps clients from all around the globe fight through the misinformation in the online world, and master their health goals in a way that also allows them to also enjoy life. After many years in practice and through extensive research, Felicia knows that the ‘restrictive dieting’ technique never works long-term, and she takes the realistic approach of the ‘80/20 rule’, as well as working with clients to find the specific strategies that work best for them. You can download her FREE Meal Planning Starter Kit to help get you on your way to crushing your health and wellness goals.

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