Folate and Folic Acid – What is the difference?

Folate and Folic Acid – What is the difference?

By Jenny Tschiesche BSc(Hons) Dip(ION) FdSc BANT

You will often find these terms used interchangeably but there are differences between folate and folic acid. Folate refers to the many forms of vitamin B9 that appear in foods and drinks naturally whilst folic acid is a synthetic form of folate.  

Why do you need folate or folic acid (vitamin B9)?

Low levels of vitamin B9 are associated with an increased risk of several health conditions, including:

  • Elevated homocysteine. High homocysteine levels have been associated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke
  • Birth defects. Low folate levels in pregnant women have been linked to birth abnormalities, such as neural tube defects
  • Cancer risk. Poor levels of folate are also linked to increased cancer risk
  • Lower sperm count. Supplementing folic acid improves sperm production in men

Folic acid

Folic acid is present in a range of fortified foods, as well as in supplement form. Sources of folic acid include:

  • fortified pasta and rice
  • fortified breakfast cereals
  • fortified bread
  • vitamin supplements

Supplements usually contain 400–800 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid.


Folate occurs naturally in many foods. Some foods contain more folate than others. Dark green, leafy vegetables, fruits, nuts, seafood, eggs, dairy products, poultry, orange juice, and grains all contain folate. Eating a varied diet with different sources of folate is important but any shortfall can be made up by supplementing.


 Folate Acid food


How much should I supplement, and can I supplement too much?

The recommended dietary allowance of folate is 400 mcg per day for an adult and 800 mcg for a pregnant woman.

Folate goes through the digestive system and enters the bloodstream through the gut. From there, it passes into the liver for processing. Any excess passes to the kidneys, and from the kidneys, it leaves the body in urine.

It is extremely hard to have too much folate, as it dissolves in water. This means that the body can get rid of excesses easily. Although the blood may carry some excess folate, this does not cause any known health risks.

During Pregnancy

Both folic acid and folate are important for women before becoming pregnant and during early pregnancy. Having a high enough level of folate in the blood can help prevent birth irregularities.

Specifically, low blood folate levels may increase the risk of neural tube irregularities. These congenital changes affect the spinal cord and brain. Two common examples are:

  1. spina bifida, a condition in which the spine does not form properly, and which can damage the nerves
  2. anencephaly, which prevents parts of the brain and skull from forming normally

It is recommended that women begin to take a folic acid supplement at least 1 month before conception.


folic acid

For Men

For men, folic acid can help with heart disease prevention. Folate pairs with vitamin B12 to help regulate the amount of the amino acid homocysteine in the body. Without enough folic acid in the body, homocysteine levels can increase the chances of cardiovascular disease.

Folic Acid can also help ward off Alzheimer’s disease, and plays a key role in preventing general memory loss that comes with old age.

Folic acid supplements may even help fight depression. Folate deficiency has been linked to a poor response to antidepressant treatments.

There is also evidence that folic acid improves sperm production so a folic acid supplement one month before conception is ideal for both mum-to-be and dad-to be. ,


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