- Folate, also known as vitamin B9 and Folacin, was once called vitamin M. It is a water-soluble B vitamin that occurs naturally in certain foods, especially leafy green vegetables like spinach, as well as various other fruits and vegetables, liver, legumes, and Brewer’s yeast.
- The terms folate and folic acid come from the Latin word for foliage, which relates to the high concentrations of folate found in leafy green vegetables.
- Folic acid, a synthetic form of folate, is added to many fortified foods such bread and cereals. In fact, in 1998, the FDA mandated that folic acid be added to all bread, cereals, flour, corn meal, pasta, and rice, and even baked goods like cookies and cakes. The reason was a concern with the high rate of neural tube birth defects in infants born to mothers with a folate deficiency. Folic acid is also the form of folate used in dietary supplements.
- Folic acid is more readily absorbed by the body than natural folate.
- Folate plays a major role in cell growth, thereby making it especially important during pregnancy. Insufficient dietary intake of folate by a pregnant mother can lead to serious neurological deficits in the newborn, including a condition called spina bifida (characterized by improper closing of the spine during the first months of fetal life).
- Folate is necessary for the synthesis of DNA.
- Folate helps prevent elevated levels of homocysteine in the blood. Homocysteine is a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
- Severe folate deficiency is associated with a type of anemia called macrocytic megaloblastic anemia, characterized by larger than normal red blood cells that remain immature, still have nuclei, and are incapable of dividing properly.
- In addition to presumably helping to prevent neurological birth defects in newborns and anemia, heart disease, and strokes in older individuals, folate may also be helpful in preventing Alzheimer’s disease and certain types of cancer.
- Even though folate, in the form of folic acid, has a high upper tolerance limit before an individual starts showing signs of toxicity, excessive consumption can be harmful in other way, by interfering with the proper absorption of vitamin B12. Since the symptoms associated with the deficiency of the two vitamins are similar, a very high intake of folate can mask the signs of vitamin B12 deficiency without correcting the accompanying neurological damage. This could lead to potentially disastrous consequences, including irreversible damage to the nervous system.