The Differences Between Folic Acid and Folate

April 9, 2020
Folic acid and folate differ in their origins. While folate is natural and found in foods, folic acid is artificial and used as a supplement.

There are differences between folic acid and folate, even though they look the same and have similar names. The main difference lies in the fact that folate is the natural form of vitamin B9, while folic acid is the artificial version.

You can find folate in most green leafy vegetables. However, folic acid is used in some nutritional supplements, and also to enrich certain foods, due to its artificial characteristics.

What’s vitamin B9?

Folic acid and folate may also be called vitamin B9. It’s a water-soluble vitamin. In other words, it dissolves in water. The name “folic acid” comes from the Latin word folium, which means leaf. The main food sources of folic acid or vitamin B9 are:

  • Green leafy vegetables – such as spinach, turnip greens, cabbage, and lettuce
  • Some fruits, such as citrus fruits, melon, or banana
  • Legumes
  • Meat – mainly liver and kidneys
  • Whole grains
  • Milk and eggs
  • Some nuts

Vitamin B9 is essential during the early stages of pregnancy and is used as supplementation. This is because it helps prevent and reduce the potential risks of congenital defects. The Spanish Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology (SEGO) conducts awareness campaigns on the importance of consuming the necessary amounts of folate or vitamin B9 before, during, and after pregnancy.

Vitamin B9 is necessary for the formation of nucleic acids (DNA and RNA), which are carriers of genetic information. Along with vitamin B12, it plays a role in the formation of red blood cells and is involved in the development of the nervous system.

Sources of vitamin B9.

You should also read: What Are the Water-Soluble Vitamins?

Differences between folic acid and folate

Your body is ready to absorb folate. It does so naturally through the mucosa present in the small intestine. The digestive system is able to convert all forms of folate to 5-MTHF, which is the molecule that passes to the blood.

On the other hand, folic acid is a synthetic molecule and, unlike folate, it isn’t converted by the digestive system. It needs to metabolize in the liver, leading to multiple enzymatic and metabolic reactions.

This process can lead to excessive unassimilated folic acid, which may pose a risk. Elevated blood levels of folic acid have been associated with various health problems.

While the body metabolizes folate instantly, a few minutes after ingestion, folic acid can take hours and even days to metabolize. Having high folic acid levels for a short time doesn’t pose any risk. However, keeping chronically high levels does have harmful effects.

Two consequences may occur if you maintain high blood levels of folic acid:

  1. It may disguise a B12 deficiency. High blood levels of folic acid can make a B12 test positive.
  2. Increased cancer risk. Different studies around the world have described a statistical correlation between high blood levels of folic acid and an increased risk of colon cancer.

Sources of folic acid.

Why you need vitamin B9

To stay healthy, your body needs different amounts of folate, depending on whether you’re pregnant, your age, your body weight, and your gender. It’s advisable to consult your doctor so that they can evaluate your particular case and make the necessary recommendations.

Folic acid and folate are essential for the correct performance of the following functions:

  • Breaking down proteins and absorb nutrients
  • Forming white and red blood cells
  • Assisting in the formation of DNA to transport genetic information
  • Preventing the risk of congenital problems in pregnant women
  • Contributing to the proper functioning of the cardiovascular system
  • Contributing to the proper functioning of the immune system
  • Helping reduce fatigue and tiredness.

Read on to learn more: The Importance of Diet in Pregnancy

Conclusion

While all sources are good to maintain adequate vitamin B9 levels, the best way for you to get this vitamin is by eating green leafy vegetables.

In specific situations, people require folic acid supplements. Health professionals will know when to indicate it, especially if you’re pregnant.

  • Ácido Fólico: nutriente redescubierto. (2003). Acta Médica Costarricense.

  • Pita Rodríguez, G. (1998). Ácido Fólico y Vitamina B12 en la Nutricion Humana. Revista Cubana Aliment Nutr.

  • Acuña, J., Yoon, P., & Erickson, J. D. (2007). Prevención de los defectos del tubo neural con ácido fólico. Oms.