When it comes to pregnancy, the first nutrient that every new mum-to-be is told about: is folate or folic acid. So, what’s the difference and are they the same thing?
I am going to try and break this down slowly as it can be a little confusing.
Both folate and folic acid are both names used to refer to Vitamin B9 and even though both terms are used interchangeably it is really important that you know the difference between the two. We also want to ensure that you are actually meeting your recommended daily intake of folate; especially during preconception and the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
Folic Acid is the oxidised synthetic form of folate found in most supplements and fortified foods including: breads, cereals & some processed baked goods.
Folate is the naturally occurring active form of folate which is found in wholefoods. This active form of folate can be seen under other names such as folinic acid, L-methylfolate or levomefolic.
Folic acid is not active therefore before it can be utilised in the body it must be converted to an active form of folate. This conversion requires several enzymes, adequate liver function, adequate intestinal function and an adequate supply of nutrients such as B2, B3, B6, B12, C, and zinc. This specific metabolic process is called methylation. So, you can imagine if any of these functions are compromised the conversion from folic acid to an active form on folate will not be as efficient as required. Although, the commonly known reason why this conversion may not happen is due to a genetic factor - MTHFR Polymorphism. Meaning these people don’t actually have the gene required to help convert folic acid to an active form of folate; this is surprisingly quite common.
The conversion from folic acid to an active form of folate is very slow and our bodies have a limited ability to reduce the folic acid to 5-MTHFR (active folate); due to it’s slow speed, so it can easily reach saturation in the body. Especially in the SAD (Standard Australian Diet) we do see a lot of bread, cereals and baked goods being consumed and if these are fortified sources, you are probably exceeding your daily requirements when accompanied with a folic acid supplement. Therefore, the bodies ability to convert all these synthetic sources of folic acid within the body is huge and can create a large amount of unconverted folic acid in the bloodstream. In comparison, dietary folate is metabolised correctly and sufficiently.
Prenatal supplements that tend to be highly marketed and most accessible on the grocery shelves use synthetic folic acid. Therefore, if the individual is compromised in anyway or doesn’t have the ability to convert folic acid into folate sufficiently, they will not be meeting their daily requirement needs for pregnancy and ultimately have the equipment needed to prevent neural tube defects and other developmental concerns for the foetus. Deficiencies in folate can also lead to abnormalities in the mother such as anaemia, peripheral neuropathy and the foetus can experience congenital abnormalities.
There is a high prevalence of woman today who have inadequate amounts of the enzymes required to convert folic acid to folate. As it is not readily accessible at the moment for all pregnant woman to be tested; most woman do not even know if they are converting correctly.
My guide is that it would be best to supplement with an active form of folate (listed above) rather than folic acid. Especially those with a family history of preterm births or neural tube defects. There are prenatal supplements that do yield active forms of folate and are best purchased over the counter at a pharmacy or through a Nutrition Practitioner. These practitioner only products (POPS) also provide you with all the other key nutrients that support a health pregnancy.
If you have any questions or are looking for the right prenatal supplement for you; contact me today and we can arrange this for you.