Folic acid and folate are different forms of vitamin B9. Despite the fact that there is a clear difference between folic acid and folate, these terms are often used interchangeably. There is a lot of confusion about it, even among professionals. Yet it is important to know the difference, because they do not have the same effect on health.
What is vitamin B9?
Vitamin B9 (formerly B11) is an essential nutrient that occurs naturally as a folate. Vegetables such as asparagus, avocados, brussels sprouts and green leafy vegetables such as spinach and lettuce are rich in folate. Folate serves many important functions in the body. For example, it plays a crucial role in cell growth and the formation of DNA. Folate helps the normal functioning of the immune system, it helps to reduce fatigue and fatigue, and it contributes to (brain and nerve functions involved in) concentration.
Having low levels of folate is associated with an increased risk of various health problems. Among which:
• High homocysteine levels, these have been associated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
• Low folate levels of pregnant women have been associated with birth defects, such as neural tube defects.
• Poor folate levels are also associated with an increased risk of cancer.
For these reasons, vitamin B9 supplementation is common.
Strengthening food with this vitamin B9 is mandatory in countries such as the United States, Canada and Chile. However, the problem is that supplements and fortified foods usually contain folic acid, not folate.
What is folate?
Folate is the natural form of vitamin B9, which occurs naturally in foods. The biologically active form of vitamin B9 is a folate known as levomefolic acid or 5-methyl tetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF). Before it enters the bloodstream, the digestive system converts folate into 5-MTHF. Folate as 5-MTHF bound to glucosamine salt keeps the biologically active form stable and is almost three times more absorbable than normal folic acid.
What is folic acid?
Folic acid is a synthetic, oxidized form of vitamin B9, also known as pteroyl monoglutamic acid. It is used in supplements and added to processed foods such as flour and breakfast cereals. For many years, it was believed that folic acid was absorbed much better than naturally occurring folate. Research shows that the human body cannot properly process folic acid and has difficulty converting it into the active form of vitamin B9, this process is very slow and inefficient. Even a small dose, such as 200-400 mcg per day, may not be fully metabolised until the next dose is taken. This problem is even worse when enriched foods are eaten together with folic acid supplements, because non-metabolized folic acid can accumulate in the bloodstream. Several studies indicate that chronically elevated levels of non-metabolized folic acid can have harmful health effects, including an increased risk of cancer or a hidden vitamin B12 deficiency. The full impact on health is not yet known and needs further investigation.
A varied and healthy diet is a good basis for taking vitamin B9. However, for some people, such as pregnant women, supplements can be a simple way to ensure that you get enough vitamin B9. In those cases it is best to choose supplements that do not contain folic acid. There are supplements that contain 5-methyl tetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF), which is considered a healthier alternative to folic acid.