Importance of Folic Acid (Folate) in Ensuring Good Health and Wellness

According to Choi, Yates, Veysey, Heo, and Lucock (2014), folate, also known as vitamin B9 and folacin, is one of the B vitamins. Manufactured folic acid, which is converted into folate by the body, is used as a dietary supplement and in food fortification as it is more stable during processing and storage. Folate is required for the body to make DNA and RNA and metabolise amino acids necessary for cell division. As humans cannot make folate, it is required in the diet, making it an essential nutrient. It occurs naturally in many foods.

WebMD (2021) described folate (formerly known as folacin), as the generic term for both naturally occurring food folate and folic acid, the fully oxidized monoglutamate form of the vitamin that is used in dietary supplements and fortified foods. Folate is the B vitamin that is important for cell growth and metabolism. The terms folate and folic acid have the same effects in the body. Folate is the natural version found in foods while folic acid is the man-made version in supplements and added to foods.

Folate (vitamin B-9) is important in red blood cell formation and for healthy cell growth and function. The nutrient is crucial during early pregnancy to reduce the risk of birth defects of the brain and spine. Folate is found mainly in dark green leafy vegetables, beans, peas and nuts. Fruits rich in folate include oranges, lemons, bananas, melons and strawberries. The synthetic form of folate is folic acid. It’s in an essential component of prenatal vitamins and is in many fortified foods such as cereals and pastas. A diet lacking foods rich in folate or folic acid can lead to a folate deficiency. Folate deficiency can also occur in people who have conditions, such as celiac disease, that prevent the small intestine from absorbing nutrients from foods (malabsorption syndromes). The recommended daily amount of folate for adults is 400 micrograms (mcg). Adult women who are planning pregnancy or could become pregnant should be advised to get 400 to 1,000 mcg of folic acid a day (Mayo Clinic, 2021).

Natural Sources of Folic Acid (Folate) for the Body

Folate (folic acid) occur natural in several foods. Below are some of the healthy foods that are high in folate or folic acid:

Legumes

Legumes are the fruit or seed of any plant in the Fabaceae family, including beans, peas and lentils. Although the exact amount of folate in legumes can vary, they are an excellent source of folate. Legumes are also a great source of protein, fiber, and antioxidants, as well as important micronutrients like potassium, magnesium and iron (Link & Arnarson, 2020).

Asparagus

Asparagus contains a concentrated amount of many vitamins and minerals, including folate. Asparagus is also rich in antioxidants and has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties (Link & Arnarson, 2020).

Eggs

Adding eggs to your diet is a great way to boost your intake of several essential nutrients, including folate. Just one large egg packs 22 mcg of folate, or approximately 6% of the DV. Including even just a few servings of eggs in your diet each week is an easy way to boost your folate intake and help meet your needs. Eggs are also loaded with protein, selenium, riboflavin, and vitamin B12. Furthermore, they’re high in lutein and zeaxanthin, two antioxidants that may help reduce the risk of eye disorders like macular degeneration (Link & Arnarson, 2020).

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Leafy greens

Leafy green vegetables such as spinach, kale, and arugula are low in calories yet bursting with many key vitamins and minerals, including folate. One cup (30 grams) of raw spinach provides 58.2 mcg, or 15% of the DV. Leafy greens are also high in fiber and vitamins K and A. They’ve been associated with a host of health benefits. Studies show that eating more cruciferous vegetables, such as leafy greens, may be associated with reduced inflammation, a lower risk of cancer, and increased weight loss (Link & Arnarson, 2020).

Beets

In addition to providing a burst of color to main dishes and desserts alike, beets are rich in many important nutrients. They contain much of the manganese, potassium, and vitamin C that you need throughout the day. They’re also a great source of folate, with a single cup (136 grams) of raw beets containing 148 mcg of folate, or about 37% of the DV. Besides their micronutrient content, beets are high in nitrates, a type of plant compound that has been associated with many health benefits. One small study showed that drinking beetroot juice temporarily lowered systolic blood pressure by 4–5 mmHg in healthy adults (Link & Arnarson, 2020).

Citrus fruits

Besides being delicious and full of flavor, citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruit, lemons, and limes are rich in folate. Just one large orange contains 55 mcg of folate, or about 14% of the DV. Citrus fruits are also packed with vitamin C, an essential micronutrient that can help boost immunity and aid disease prevention. In fact, observational studies have found that a high intake of citrus fruits may be associated with a lower risk of breast, stomach, and pancreatic cancer (Link & Arnarson, 2020).

Brussels sprouts

This nutritious vegetable belongs to the cruciferous family of vegetables and is closely related to other greens like kale, broccoli, cabbage, and kohlrabi. Brussels sprouts are brimming with many vitamins and minerals and especially high in folate. A half-cup (78-gram) serving of cooked Brussels sprouts can supply 47 mcg of folate, or 12% of the DV. They’re also a great source of kaempferol, an antioxidant associated with numerous health benefits (Link & Arnarson, 2020).

Broccoli

Well known for its multitude of health-promoting properties, adding broccoli to your diet can provide an array of essential vitamins and minerals. When it comes to folate, one cup (91 grams) of raw broccoli contains around 57 mcg of folate, or about 14% of the DV. Cooked broccoli contains even more folate, with each half-cup (78-gram) serving providing 84 mcg, or 21% of the DV. Broccoli is also high in manganese and vitamins C, K, and A. It likewise contains a wide variety of beneficial plant compounds, including sulforaphane, which has been studied extensively for its powerful anti-cancer properties (Link & Arnarson, 2020).

Nuts and seeds

There are plenty of reasons to consider upping your intake of nuts and seeds. In addition to containing a hearty dose of protein, they’re rich in fiber and many of the vitamins and minerals that your body needs. Incorporating more nuts and seeds into your diet can also help you meet your daily folate needs. The amount of folate in various types of nuts and seeds can vary slightly. One ounce (28 grams) of walnuts contains about 28 mcg of folate, or around 7% of the DV, while the same serving of flax seeds contains about 24 mcg of folate, or 6% of the DV (Link & Arnarson, 2020).

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Beef liver

Beef liver is one of the most concentrated sources of folate available. A 3-ounce (85-gram) serving of cooked beef liver packs 212 mcg of folate, or about 54% of the DV. In addition to folate, a single serving of beef liver can meet and exceed your daily requirements for vitamin A, vitamin B12, and copper. It’s also loaded with protein, providing a whopping 24 grams per 3-ounce (85-gram) serving. Protein is necessary for tissue repair and the production of important enzymes and hormones (Link & Arnarson, 2020).

Wheat germ

Wheat germ is the embryo of the wheat kernel. Although it’s often removed during the milling process, it supplies a high concentration of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Just one ounce (28 grams) of wheat germ provides 78.7 mcg of folate, which equals about 20% of your daily folate needs. It also contains a good chunk of fiber, providing up to 16% of the fiber you need per day in a single ounce (28 grams). Fiber moves slowly through your digestive tract, adding bulk to your stool to help promote regularity, prevent constipation, and keep blood sugar levels steady (Link & Arnarson, 2020).

Papaya

Besides being delicious and full of flavor, papaya is jam-packed with folate. One cup (140 grams) of raw papaya contains 53 mcg of folate, which is equal to about 13% of the DV. Additionally, papaya is high in vitamin C, potassium, and antioxidants like carotenoids (Link & Arnarson, 2020).

Bananas

Rich in a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, bananas are a nutritional powerhouse. They’re especially high in folate and can easily help you meet your daily needs when paired with a few other folate-rich foods. A medium banana can supply 23.6 mcg of folate, or 6% of the DV. Bananas are high in other nutrients as well, including potassium, vitamin B6, and manganese (Link & Arnarson, 2020).

Avocado

Avocados are incredibly popular due to their creamy texture and buttery flavor. In addition to their unique taste, avocados are an excellent source of many important nutrients, including folate. One-half of a raw avocado contains 82 mcg of folate, or about 21% of the amount you need for the entire day. Plus, avocados are rich in potassium and vitamins K, C, and B6. They’re also high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, which may protect against heart disease (Link & Arnarson, 2020).

Fortified grains

Many types of grains, such as bread and pasta, have been fortified to boost their folic acid content. The amounts can vary between different products, but one cup (140 grams) of cooked spaghetti supplies approximately 102 mcg of folic acid, or 25% of the DV. Interestingly, some studies have demonstrated that the folic acid in fortified foods may be more easily absorbed than the folate found naturally in foods. For example, one study concluded that the folate in foods such as fruits and vegetables is only about 78% as bioavailable as the folic acid in fortified foods. A well-balanced diet that’s rich in natural sources of folate and includes a moderate number of fortified foods can ensure you’re meeting your needs, all while minimizing potential health concerns (Link & Arnarson, 2020).

Benefits of Folate (Folic Acid) to the Body

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Weber and Fogoros (2020) stated that folate is essential to good health. If you don’t get enough from your diet or folic acid supplements, you may develop a folate deficiency. Folate deficiency can also be caused by certain medications (such as metformin, birth control pills, and methotrexate) and in people with severe bleeding, liver disease, malabsorption disorders (like celiac disease), and alcoholism. Consuming enough folate in your diet may help prevent a number of health conditions, including some cases stroke, neural tube defects, aging-related macular degeneration, and even some types of cancer.

The following are some of the most remarkable health benefits of folate (folic acid):

Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease

Folate is used by the body to maintain and repair blood vessels. It also helps lower the level of an amino acid called homocysteine that contributes to cardiovascular disease. Homocysteine is created when proteins, mainly from meat, begin to break down. High concentrations of homocysteine can cause the hardening the arteries (atherosclerosis), increasing the risk of heart attacks and stroke (Weber & Fogoros, 2020).

Prevents Neural Tube Defects

Neural tube defects (NDTs) are birth defects of the brain or spinal cord that typically occur during the first month of pregnancy. The two most common NDTs are spina bifida and anencephaly.  Inadequate levels of folate and vitamin B12 during pregnancy are known to increase the risk of NDTs. Of the two, folate deficiency is much more common and therefore more of a concern. Because an NDT can occur before you even know that you are pregnant, it is essential that you maintain good dietary habits at all times, including the ample intake of folate. This is especially true if you in your reproductive years and are vulnerable to folate deficiency (Weber & Fogoros, 2020).

Prevention of Macular Degeneration

Aging-related macular degeneration (AMD) is an eye disorder characterized by the progressive loss of the center of the field of vision. The underlying cause of macular AMD is not well understood, although some scientists believe that it is the result of inflammation and oxidative stresses placed on the eyes over a lifetime. Chronically elevated homocysteine may also play a part, putting into focus the role of folate in preventing AMD (Weber & Fogoros, 2020).

Prevention of Cancer

Folate has a contradictory relationship with cancer. On the one hand, the chronically insufficient intake of folate may increase the risk of brain, breast, cervical, colorectal, lung, ovarian, pancreas, and prostate cancers. On the other, the excessive intake of folic acid may increase the risk of certain cancers, mainly prostate cancer. There is some evidence that the high intake of dietary folate may significantly reduce the risk of certain cancers, particularly those in women (Weber & Fogoros, 2020).

References

Choi, J.H., Yates, Z., Veysey, M., Heo, Y.R. & Lucock, M. (2014). “Contemporary issues surrounding folic Acid fortification initiatives”Prev Nutr Food Sci. 19 (4): 247–60. doi:10.3746/pnf.2014.19.4.247.

Link, R. & Arnarson, A. (2020). 15 Healthy Foods That Are High in Folate (Folic Acid). Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/foods-high-in-folate-folic-acid on 5th May, 2021.

Mayo Clinic (2021). Folate (folic acid). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements-folate/art-20364625#:~:text=The%20recommended%20daily%20amount%20of,of%20folic%20acid%20a%20day on 5th May, 2021.

Weber, C. O. & Fogoros, R. N. (2020). The Health Benefits of Folate. Retrieved from https://www.verywellhealth.com/folate-for-high-blood-pressure-1763888 on 5th May, 2021.

WebMD (2021). Folate (Folic Acid). Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/diet/supplement-guide-folic-acid#1 on 5th May, 2021.

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