What is folic acid and why is it important?

Have you heard the news that white flour is going to be fortified with folic acid, in the UK? This is an attempt to reduce neural tube defects – such as spina bifida and anencephaly – in babies.

Approx read time: 6 mins

The UK has taken a long time to come to this decision and have been accused of public health malpractice but actually they’ve just exercised some necessary caution.

What is folic acid?

Folic acid is the man-made version of the vitamin B9, known as Folate. Folate is what is found naturally in food, folic acid is the supplement version.

And why is folic acid important?

Working with vitamin B12, folate is required to form red blood cells. A deficiency can stop your red blood cells from carrying as much oxygen and that’s pretty bad because every one of your cells needs oxygen to do its thing. 

Both vitamins also help our nerves to work properly.

Mega importantly, folate is essential to make DNA in every cell of our bodies, which means each cell can properly replicate (copy itself to a new cell). 

Research has shown that folic acid supplements can reduce high levels of homocysteine – an amino acid in the blood (prevalent in red meat) that irritates blood vessels and has been linked with increased risk of heart attack or stroke.

Folate also helps our neurological pathways, and deficiency may be a significant factor in depression and mood disorders.

So you can see that it’s quite important!

If it’s so important, why the caution?

Reasons for caution over widespread fortification include the fact that folic acid supplementation can hide symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency. A reasonable percentage of over-60s are deficient in B12 because their bodies stop being as good at absorbing it because they stop producing as much of the substance that helps it to absorb.

Another reason is that it might help to speed up progression of existing cancers, but on the other hand it might help to reduce incidence of some cancers too! So the cancer thing is a tricky one to manage. Anyway, that’s why they’ve deliberated over it for so long.

Non-wholemeal flour will soon be fortified with folic acid in the UK. (Photo by Kaboompics .com from Pexels)

How can I get folic acid – folate – naturally?

In terms of real food sources of folate, they include:

  • Green leafy veg. Particularly uncooked or lightly cooked. This is one reason our nutrition plans feature a large variety of salads. Folate is water soluble so it will disappear into cooking water.
  • Beans, lentils, chickpeas and the like (pulses and legumes).
  • Yeast extract (Marmite!).
  • Oranges.
  • Whole grains.
  • Shellfish, poultry, pork, liver (liver not to be eaten during pregnancy).
  • Fortified foods such as some breakfast cereals and, soon, white flour.

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Thank you for reading this article. Please note that while we share a lot of awesome information and research you should be aware our articles are strictly for informational purposes and do not constitute medical advice intended to diagnose, cure, treat or prevent any disease.

Cover photo by Kindel Media from Pexels.