There are a few different forms of folate, and it’s important to know the differences so you can make the best decision for yourself when it comes to your nutrition and overall health.
What is folate?
Folate (also known as vitamin B9) is a water-soluble B vitamin. Your body needs folate to make DNA and red blood cells. It’s also essential for healthy growth and development.
This nutrient is also particularly important for women during pregnancy. In fact, healthful diets with adequate folate may reduce a woman’s risk of having a child with a brain or spinal cord birth defect.
Are there different forms of folate?
Folate is a blanket term – it describes the folate found naturally in food, as well as folates in fortified foods and dietary supplements. There are three main forms of folate: food folate, folic acid, and methylated folate. Let’s take a deeper dive into each.
Some foods naturally contain folate, like leafy greens, oranges, nuts, beans, and peanuts.
Folic acid is a synthetic form of folate found in some dietary supplements and fortified foods.
Fortified foods are probably part of your everyday diet. Think iodized salt (fortified with iodine), vitamin D-fortified milk, or calcium-fortified orange juice. Fortification is the process of adding a nutrient to a food that doesn’t naturally occur in that food. But why?
Sometimes, it can be difficult for people to get enough of certain nutrients through their diet, and eventually, that nutrient gap can become a public health concern. That’s what happened with folate. In 1998, as the connection between prenatal health and folate became more apparent, the United States started a mandatory folic acid fortification program. This program required manufacturers to add folic acid to enriched grain products, like bread, cereal, pasta, flour, and rice. Since these foods are common in a typical diet, they helped people meet their folate needs. Folic acid fortification is still going strong and continues to help bridge the folate gap to this day.
While folic acid used to be the most common supplemental form of folate, you’ll find more and more dietary supplements with methylated folate instead. You’ll usually see this form listed on the Supplement Facts panel as L-5-methyltetrahydrofolate or L-5-MTHF. Methylated folate is the biologically active form of folate – it’s the form that your body can readily use.
Are the different forms of folate absorbed differently?
Your body is more efficient at absorbing folate from supplements than folate from food. But that doesn’t mean you should ditch food sources of folate. Whole foods nourish your body in incredible ways, and researchers are still figuring out how nutrients within foods work together to keep you healthy.
The Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) developed dietary folate equivalents (DFEs) to reflect the difference in bioavailability (how well your body can absorb a nutrient) between food folate and supplemental folate.
One microgram (mcg) DFE equals:
- 1 mcg food folate
- 0.6 mcg folic acid from fortified foods or dietary supplements consumed with foods
- 0.5 mcg folic acid taken on an empty stomach
- 0.6 mcg methylated folate from dietary supplements consumed with foods
How much folate do you need?
Which form of folate should you choose?
While you should always aim to get your nutrients from food first, you may need an extra folate boost. If you’re pregnant or trying to conceive, folate plays an essential role in early pregnancy (often before a woman even knows she’s pregnant), most experts recommend that women of reproductive age take a high-quality folate supplement to make sure they meet their folate needs. Men and non-pregnant women who are concerned about their folate intake may also benefit from a folate supplement or well-rounded multivitamin with folate. Talk with your healthcare provider about your nutrition needs. For many, folic acid works just fine to support healthy folate levels. But some people have a genetic variation that makes it difficult for them to convert folic acid to the active form of folate: 5-methyltetrahydrofolate. These individuals may benefit from a supplement that contains methylated folate instead of folic acid. Talk with your healthcare provider if you have any questions about genetic testing.
Folate remains an essential nutrient to support healthy growth and development, and you’ve got a few different ways to meet your folate needs. Choose plenty of folate-rich foods and consider methylated folate if you’re planning on adding a folate supplement to your daily routine.