Facts & Recommendations
Folic acid: natural and synthetic form
Folate is the naturally form of vitamin B9 occurring in food whereas folic acid is the synthesised one (used in food supplements).
Folic acid must be metabolized (converted to folates) in order to become active and be used by the body.
Its name comes from the Latin word “folium” (leaf) as folate is found in green leafy vegetables (spinach, green salad, broccoli). Pulses, yeast, wheat germs, liver, eggs and nuts are good sources of folate too.
The bioavailability of natural food folates is lower than that of synthetic folic acid and is currently estimated to be around 80% (relative bioavailability).
The water-soluble vitamin B9 is extremely sensitive to light and heat. Depending on the storage conditions and the cooking method, the amount of vitamin can decrease up to 90% of the initial one. It is therefore challenging to cover your daily needs just through nutrition, even if you have a varied and balanced diet.
Whenever possible, prepare your meal by cooking the vegetable gently, using a steamer for example.
Folate plays an important role for the synthesis of DNA. It is involved in cell division and cell growth processes. Folate is therefore essential for pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers as it influences the formation of the maternal tissue (placenta), of the spine, the brain and the nervous cells of the embryo as well as the development of the newborn.
You will also benefit in other ways from folic acid: it supports the immune system, reduces fatigue and in association with vitamin B12 regulates the homocysteine level in blood (homocysteine is a naturally occurring amino-acid which at high concentration in blood is associated with cardiovascular disease).
Consequences of a folic acid deficiency
A folic acid deficiency in pregnant women is associated with placental-related complications, such as pre-eclampsia and foetal growth restriction, with neural tube defects (NTDs), cleft lips and palates, urological disorders and heart defects as well as an increased risk of preterm delivery.
Several studies have shown that
- the use of oral contraceptives reduces the blood folate concentrations;
- Folate is necessary for fertility in both men and women;
- an adequate intake of folic acid before and during pregnancy is linked to a lessened risk of NTDs and other associated risks, mainly occurring during the first trimester.
As many women become pregnant without having planned it or may not realize that they are pregnant until well into the first trimester, it is essential to have an adequate intake of folates.
Most of the health authorities worldwide recommend all women wishing to conceive to start taking a daily folic acid supplement at 800 microgram (µg) or 400 microgram (µg) at least four weeks before conception until the end of the 12th week of pregnancy.
Healthcare specialists recommend to women with no personal health risks to take a daily folic acid supplement as follows:
- 800 µg folic acid after discontinuing the use of oral contraceptives until the 12th week of pregnancy
- 400 µg folic acid from the 13th week of pregnancy and during lactation.