B Vitamins are integral to carry out different body processes such as nutrient digestion and metabolism. One important nutrient is B9. Better known as folate or folic acid, this vitamin works as a catalyst in cell growth, blood production, and DNA synthesis.
Folate vs. Folic Acid
Folate and folic acid are used interchangeably by the medical community, but in reality, they are very different compounds.
Folate is the naturally occurring form of B9. It comes from the Latin word folium meaning leaf. This is why most sources of folate come from green leafy vegetables in addition to legumes, sunflower seeds, asparagus, and oranges. Some folate is also produced in the intestinal tract.
Folic Acid is the synthetic form of folate. This compound is made in a lab and used frequently in food production. It is more stable and readily absorbable, but it needs to be converted into folate in order for the body to get any use of out of it. Folic acid is added to all enriched grains such as white bread, flour, pasta, rice, and some whole grain products that also contain enriched flours. It is also added to orange juice and used in vitamin supplements.
Folic Acid Enrichment
Enrichment is when a nutrient is added to a food after it is lost during food processing. An example of this is white rice. The original rice kernel is a whole grain with a bran layer that protects the starchy inner part known as endosperm. This part of the grain contains several vitamins including B vitamins. When the grain is processed the bran is removed and all that is left is the starch. Folic acid and other vitamins are then added back to the starch portion.
1998 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Calls For Folic Acid Enrichment
Enrichment occurs when the government sees health issue related to a vitamin or mineral deficiency within the population. A large portion of babies were being born with neurological problems such as spina bifida and anencephaly resulting from mothers not getting enough folate at the time of conception. This was why the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) passed a law in 1998 that called for the addition of synthetic folic acid to all enriched bread flours, cornmeal, pasta, rice, and other grains. It has been successful in decreasing the amount of birth defects by 25 to 50 percent.
Dangers of Synthetic Folic Acid
While successful in preventing birth defects in infants, findings that show too much folic acid intake is not always a good thing. Research has indicated there may be a connection between high folic acid intake and colon and prostate cancers.
It can also be detrimental for individuals who have the genetic defect called methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (NAD(P)H) or MTHFR. Approximately 50 percent of the population has this disorder and are unable to convert folic acid into the active form of folate. This results in toxins building up in your tissues and organs.
The inability to convert folate to the active form will result in a deficiency. In turn it will increase the level of the protein homocysteine which puts you at risk for stroke and heart disease.
High folic acid levels also mask a B12 deficiency which can cause problems with cardiac, nerve function, and other cellular processes.
Alternatively, active folate has been found to reduce cardiovascular disease and colon, cervical, and breast cancer. It reduces homocysteine levels thus decreasing the risk of heart disease. It may also prevent Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease by protecting the brain cells from damage.
How to know when you’re getting too much or too little folic acid
You should be aware of your the amount of folic acid in your body. Get a blood test to check your folic acid, B12, and homocysteine levels. If you have a b12 deficiency or abnormally high folic acid and homocysteine levels it may indicate MTHFR. This mutation can be determined by a blood or DNA test. Below I have provided normal ranges for folic acid, homocysteine, and B12:
Folic Acid Levels within normal range: 2-20 ng/mL or 4.5-45.3 ng/L
Homocysteine levels within normal range: 4.4-10.8 mm/L
B12 Levels within normal range: > 450 pg/ml
What to Look for When Reading Food Labels
If the label says “ENRICHED” that means it contains synthetic folic acid. This is even the case with some whole grain foods, so make sure to look at the label closely. According to the FDA, only 50% of the product needs to be whole grain to be labeled as a “WHOLE GRAIN.” Some gluten free foods also have enriched grains so be sure to read food labels.
The recommended daily intake for adults is 400 mcg DFE. Below is a sample of typical enriched foods. In total when eating them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner you get a total of 657 mcg. This is a 60% increase over the RDI.
Orange Juice 1 cup 110 mcg
1 cup cheerios 330 mcg
2 slices white bread 70 mcg (35 mcg per slice)
2 slices enriched whole wheat bread 50 mcg (25 mcg per slice)
Spaghetti enriched (cooked) 1 cup 127 mcg
Macaroni enriched (cooked) 1 cup 172 mcg
Bread roll 15 mcg
Enriched cracker/cookie – 2 medium size cookies (1 oz) 5-15 mcg
Total Daily Intake of Folic Acid: 657 mcg
To Sum It All Up
There are good and bad sides to enrichment. People are provided with vitamins they may not be getting from other foods, but at the same time they may be consuming too much folic acid depending on their diet.
If you have high folic acid levels you may want to get further information about your B12, homocysteine, and chances for MTHFR.
You may also want to start calculating the amount of folic acid in your diet. It can be found on the food label.
Active folate does not pose a threat to your system. Foods rich in folate should be chosen as a way to get B9 in your diet.
If you are looking to get your B9 from natural sources check out this recipe with the folate rich vegetable asparagus.