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What Is Folate? - Foods, Benefits & Deficiency Symptoms

Instructor: Jayne Yenko

Jayne has taught health/nutrition and education at the college level and has a master's degree in education.

Folate is an essential vitamin, particularly for pregnant women in the prevention of birth defects. It has several other important roles in the human body as well. Why is this so, and what can you do to improve your health?

Introduction

The 'folic acid boys' discover a new vitamin! Well, close, but not quite. This is how it actually happened. In 1931, Lucy Wills, an English hematologist studying anemia in pregnant women, discovered the substance that later became known as folate. Folate was first isolated from spinach leaves in 1941. A team of researchers known as the 'folic acid boys' discovered the crystalline form of folate in 1945. The first cancer drug was developed from this research shortly thereafter, and then folate's role in neural tube defects was found. All of this happened within the span of about 30 years.

Folate (the natural form) and folic acid (the synthetic form) are one of the B vitamins that is water soluble. Folate and folic acid work the same way in the body. Folate contains carbon, comes from living things, and is non-caloric. Since folate is water soluble, it must be consumed on a daily basis, although it is stored to some extent in the body.

Lucy Wills, discoverer of folate
Lucy Wills, discoverer of folate

Foods

Folate is found in a wide variety of foods, from vegetables, fruits, nuts, and legumes (beans and peas) to meats, dairy products, and grains. The foods with the highest folate content include several dark green leafy vegetables, like spinach and Brussels sprouts. In fact, the name folate comes from the Latin word for leaf, 'folium'.

And have you ever noticed that your cereal is fortified with a variety of vitamins and minerals? Folate is one of them. In 1998, the Food and Drug Administration began requiring the addition of folate to enriched cereals, breads, and other grain-based foods to prevent the risk of neural tube defects.

Examples of common foods and their folate amounts per serving are shown here:

  • Liver: 215 mcg
  • Spinach: 131 mcg
  • Fortified breakfast cereals: 100 mcg
  • Brussels sprouts: 94 mcg
  • Asparagus: 89 mcg
  • Enriched spaghetti: 83 mcg
  • Orange juice: 35 mcg
  • Banana: 24 mcg

The recommended amount is 400 mcg daily for men and women. Pregnant women need 600 mcg daily. The maximum level is 1000 mcg per day.

Folate enriched grain products
Folate enriched grain products

Benefits

You may have heard that folate is essential for development of the fetus during pregnancy, but did you know it has a myriad of other health benefits? All B vitamins assist with the production of energy within the body, but folate has some special roles to fill as well:

  • The synthesis of nucleic acids, such as DNA and RNA, requires folate in the role of co-enzymes.
  • Folate also has a role in the metabolism of amino acids.
  • Folate is vitally important for healthy brain function, as well as mental and emotion well-being. Consuming adequate amounts of folate may help, particularly in depression and other mental states.
  • Rapid growth, such as pregnancy, infancy, and adolescence, requires the presence of adequate amounts of folate.
  • Folate supplementation has been shown to reduce the risk of preterm births. It may also reduce risks of congenital heart defects, urinal tract defects, limb malformation, and hydrocephalus (brain swelling caused by fluid buildup inside the skull).
  • Folate reduces the levels of homocysteine in the body, which can consequently lower the risk of heart disease.

Deficiency Conditions and Symptoms

Folate deficiencies are strongly associated with poor diet, malabsorption issues, alcoholism, celiac disease, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), and with other nutrient deficiencies. Deficiency does not often occur on its own, although symptoms such as loss of appetite, weight loss, sore tongue, diarrhea, headaches, and irritability may indicate a deficiency of folate.

Such a deficiency takes months to develop, since the body stores some folate. Megaloblastic anemia is a major indication of folate deficiency. Its symptoms include weakness, fatigue, headaches, heart palpitations, and shortness of breath.

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