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Folate and folic acid are terms often used interchangeably despite the fact they are not the same.
Folate, which is also known as vitamin B9, is a general term for a group of water-soluble B vitamins. There are 8 different types of vitamin B which all come from different food types.
Folate is needed for a vast number of biological functions, including the production of red and white blood cells and regulating homocysteine, an amino acid used to make protein and to build and maintain tissue. Excessive levels of homocysteine in your blood may increase the risk of stroke, certain types of heart disease and disease of the blood vessels in the arms, legs and feet. Folate is essential for DNA replication and protection; meaning it is required for all cell division and growth in the body. Any cells that rapidly divide, including those involved in sperm production, red blood cell production, nail and hair growth have a high demand for folate.
In pregnant women and those who are trying to conceive, it is vital that their folate levels are high enough, as the foetus undergoes rapid cell division, and so has a very high demand for folate. Because of this, pregnant women are recommended to supplement with 400 mcg folic acid daily from the time they stop using contraception until they're 12 weeks pregnant. This is to help prevent birth defects, such as spina bifida. A deficiency of folate is the most common cause of spina bifida, which is a result of partially formed neural tubes.
The terms vitamin B9, folic acid and folate are often used interchangeably. While folate and folic acid are similar, there are differences between the two. Because folate is a water-soluble B vitamin, it can't be stored in the body so needs to be constantly ingested through the foods we eat. Most people should be able to get the amount they need by eating a varied and balanced diet. Folates occur naturally in foods including leafy greens, nuts, seeds and legumes. Folic acid is a synthesised version of folate produced in a laboratory and found in supplements and fortified foods such as cereals. Although folic acid is a supplemental form of folate, there is an important distinction between these two different compounds. Unlike folate, most of the folic acid taken in by the body is not converted to the active, tissue-ready form of vitamin B9 (5-MTHF) by the digestive system. Instead, it is converted in the liver or other tissues - but this is a slow and inefficient process.
Although folate is easier for the body to convert compared to folic acid, for some people including pregnant women and those who do not obtain a well-balanced, nutritious diet, folic acid supplements are an easy way to make sure they are getting enough vitamin B9. It can be difficult for pregnant women to get the amount of folate recommended for pregnancy from food alone, which is why it is recommended and important to take a folic acid supplement. However, supplementing too much folic acid for women past childbearing age and for men, in general, is not recommended as excessive doses of folate are not necessary, and may even be harmful. This is why we recommend testing your folate levels before supplementing and if you are still unsure, speaking with your doctor.