What’s the Difference Between Folic Acid & Folate?

It’s folic acid and folate in today’s article. Yes! Is there any difference between folic acid and folate? We will answer this in today’s article.

It is worth noting that folic acid and folate are different forms of B9 vitamin.

While there is a unique difference between both, their names are used interchangeably by most people.

Even professionals get confused regarding folate and folic acid.

This article compares and highlights the differences between folic acid and folate.

Vitamin B9

Vitamin B9 occurs naturally as folate. It is a very essential nutrient.

Vitamin B9 plays many roles in body physiology. For instance, it is very important in DNA formation and cellular growth.

Vitamin B9 deficiency is associated with a high risk of some health conditions, such as:

  • Elevated homocysteine: Elevated homocysteine levels are linked to a very high risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke (1, 2).
  • Birth defects: Folate deficiency in pregnant women is linked to birth defects, like neural tube defects (3).
  • High risk of cancer: Low levels of folate are linked to a high risk of cancer (4, 5).

These explain why vitamin B9 supplements are common. Individuals must supplement this nutrient in many countries, including Canada and the United States.

What is folate?

Simply put, folate is the natural form of vitamin B9.

The word folate is derived from folium, its Latin version. Folate is best sourced from leafy vegetables.

Folate is a generic term for compounds that share similar nutritional properties.

Levomefolic acid is the active form of folate. Levomefolic acid is also known as 5-methyltetrahydrofolate.

Your digestive system converts folate to 5-MTHF before transferring it into your bloodstream. (6).

About folic acid

Unlike folate, folic acid is the synthetic form of vitamin B9. Its scientific name is pteroylmonoglutamic acid.

Folic acid is an important component of supplements and processed food products like breakfast cereals and flour.

Your digestive system can only convert part of folate into 5-MTHF, the active form of vitamin B9. Most of it needs to be converted in the liver and other tissues (5, 6).

The conversion process is inefficient and very slow in some persons. After supplementing with folic acid, it takes your body some time to convert it to 5-MTHF (7).

It is worth noting that a dose of folic acid as small as 200-400 mcg daily may not be fully metabolized until you take the next dose. The problems get worse when you eat fortified foods together with folic acid supplements (8, 9).

This explains why unmetabolized folic acid is present in people’s blood, even when they’re fasting (10, 11, 12).

High levels of unmetabolized folic acid is linked to several health disorders.

Particular research has shown that combining folic acid with other B vitamins makes the process of conversion more efficient (10).

Does unmetabolized folic acid cause harm to the body?

Many studies have shown that high levels of unmetabolized folic acid may affect one’s health. These negative effects include:

  • A high risk of cancer: High levels of folic acid not metabolized increases your risk of cancer. But that said, there’s no scientific proof that unmetabolized folic acid contributes directly to this (13, 14, 15).
  • Masking of vitamin B12 deficiency: High levels of folic acid in the elderly can mask the deficiency of vitamin B12. If vitamin B12 deficiency is not treated, it may alter nerve function and increase an individual’s risk of dementia (16, 17).

It is important to note that the accumulation of unmetabolized folic acid in the blood may occur even if a person takes a daily dose as small as 400 mcg (9, 18).

Although we may be concerned about the high intake of folic acid, its health implications remain shrouded in mystery, and so there is a need for further studies on this subject.  

Healthy sources of vitamin B9

The best source of vitamin B9 is from whole foods.

Folate-rich foods include avocados, asparagus, lettuce, spinach, and Brussels sprouts.

However, pregnant women are okay with supplements as that’s an easier way for them to get adequate vitamin B9.

Folic acid is the most common supplement of vitamin B9. You can purchase it at your local drug stores as well as online.

5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF) is contained in other supplements. 5-MTHF is considered the best substitute for folic acid (19, 20, 21, 22).

The 5-MTHF supplement is available as levomefolate magnesium or levomefolate calcium. It’s brand names are Metafolin, Enlyte, and Deplin and can be purchased online.

The summary

Folate and folic acid are two different things. While folate is the natural form of vitamin B9, folic acid is the artificial or synthetic form. Excessive intake of folic acid may result in high blood levels of unmetabolized folic acid. Some health researchers believe that this may affect the individual’s health over time, but there’s a need for further studies before any conclusion can be reached.

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