Folate, also known as folacin, and folic acid are different forms of the same vitamin. According to the Office of Dietary Supplements, the name comes from “follium,” which is the Latin word for leaf. Folate is the natural form of the vitamin found in foods, while folic acid is the synthetic form used in dietary supplements and in fortified foods. Folic acid and folate work the same in the body, with one exception: folic acid is better absorbed than the natural form. You only need 60 micrograms of folic acid to get the same benefits from 100 micrograms of folate, according to nutritionist Monica Reinagel, MS, LN.
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Folate is necessary to make RNA and DNA, which contain the codes your body needs to build cells. It also prevents changes to RNA an DNA that can lead to cancer. You need folate to produce normal red blood cells. Folate is found in green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, and legumes. Breads and cereals are fortified with folic acid. The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine recommends adults get 400 micrograms of folate or folic acid every day.
Folate deficiency can occur when you don’t get enough folate from your diet, or if you take certain medications that interfere with its metabolism. Medical conditions, such as pregnancy, lactation, alcoholism, malabsorption syndromes, kidney and liver disease, may increase your need. Folate deficiency can lead to megaloblastic anemia, a condition in which your blood cells are larger than normal and the nuclei are also too large.
Folic acid supplements help prevent neural tube defects and other malformations when taken before and during the early weeks of pregnancy. Since the Institute of Medicine recommends that women get their folate from the synthetic form, it is important for pregnant women to consume 400 micrograms of folic acid every day from supplements and/or fortified foods along with food folate from a varied diet to reduce the risk of birth defects, notes the University of Florida. Folic acid also reduces levels of homocysteine, which is a blood protein. An elevated level of homocysteine in the blood is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, notes the Office of Dietary Supplements. However, an article published in February 2011 in the “Journal of Inherited Metabolic Disease” notes that recent studies cast doubt on the role of B vitamins and homocysteine in cardiovascular disease.
The Institute of Medicine sets the tolerable upper limit for folic acid at 1,000 micrograms per day. According to the Office of Dietary Supplements, taking large amounts of folic acid may mask a B-12 deficiency, which if left untreated, can lead to nerve damage. You should not take folic acid supplements before consulting your doctor if you are over age 50 or if you are at risk for cardiovascular disease.