Folate vs Folic Acid:  What’s the Difference?

Folate is required for neurotransmitter production, DNA synthesis, cell repair and growth, and helps decrease inflammation in the body.  Many processed foods and refined grains that have lost their natural folate during processing and since 1998, are enriched with folic acid in an effort to make up for this loss.  The food industry uses folic acid as it is more stable for adding to foods (refined grains) and is inexpensive.

But is folic acid really the same as the folate that was naturally in the food? In short, no.

Folic acid has high bioavailability, meaning the body readily absorbs it, but it must undergo steps of conversion to be made into an active form of folate. Folic acid levels can be high in the blood plasma, but low in tissues, and have been shown to be rapidly excreted through the kidneys. Folic acid is not an active coenzyme, it requires several metabolic steps for conversion to tetrahydrofolate (THF).

Folic acid can be consumed from enriched grain products, like the white bread pictured in the figure to the left, or in the form of vitamins. It then undergoes conversions until it becomes the active form used by the body for neurotransmitter production, 5-methyltetrahydrofolate.

This conversion happens by means of the enzyme methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase, known in short by MTHFR. Approximately 25% or more of the population has a poorly functioning MTHFR that does just a fraction of the work that a fully functioning MTHFR does. This can affect all ethnic backgrounds of people. People with a poor functioning MTHFR can be more prone to depression and be at higher risk of cancers and heart disease.

Fortunately, whole, unprocessed foods contain the active form of folate, 5-methyltetrahydrofolate, and bypass the need for MTHFR conversions. However, it is possible that some people may benefit from supplements made with the active form as well. These are increasingly available if you know what to look for.

Research is now showing that for those with the MTHFR single nucleotide polymorphism, the natural form of folate, or that with an intact methyl group, makes a significant difference in how effective it is.  Particularly in the case of neurotransmitter production, having folate instead of folic acid can more effectively combat symptoms of depression.  

It comes down to the methyl group, or the CH3 circled on the bottom in the image to the right. Interestingly, in tested vegetables (green beans, yellow beans, peas, cauliflower, broccoli and spinach), only one folate form was identified, 5-methyltetrahydrofolate.  So really you could put the folate you get from foods below the conversions shown above it in the figure above with the spinach leaves. This is a major benefit over the folic acid found in most supplements and enriched processed foods, which must be converted.  

If choosing a supplement, look for methylfolate, which may be written as L-methylfolate or 5-methyltetrahydrofolate, they are the same.

Humans are unable to synthesize folate, so it must be acquired in the diet. And it is entirely possible to have a diet inadequate in folate if you are not eating a good variety of whole and unprocessed foods. In fact, research has found that in people with depression, folate intake is lower compared to non-depressed individuals. This also correlates with low serum blood levels.

A food with 10-19% of the daily value of a nutrient is considered a good source of that nutrient. If the food has more than 20% of the DV, it is considered an excellent source. According to the National Institute of Health, the recommended daily intakes for folate for various age groups and life stages are:

Life Stage Recommended Amount
Birth to 6 months65 mcg
Infants 7–12 months80 mcg
Children 1–3 years150 mcg
Children 4–8 years200 mcg
Children 9–13 years300 mcg
Teens 14–18 years400 mcg
Adults 19+ years400 mcg
Pregnant teens and women600 mcg
Breastfeeding teens and women500 mcg

Some high folate foods include:

  • Spinach and other leafy green vegetables, brussels sprouts, asparagus
  • Liver
  • Meat
  • Eggs
  • Seafood
  • Beans
  • Nuts
  • Whole grains
  • Fruit 

According to the USDA, these are the approximate micrograms of folate found in the following foods:

Food descriptionMeasureFolate in mcg per measure
Adzuki beans**1 cup1225
Black beans**1 cup861
Soybeans**1 cup422
Quaker Crunchy Bran ready to eat cereal**3/4 cup420
Edamame, frozen**1 cup358
Sunflower seeds, toasted**1 cup319 (1/3 cup is a more likely serving, ~100 at that serving size)
Asparagus, cooked**1 cup243
Black eyed peas**1 cup240
Macaroni, enriched***, dry1 cup spirals234
Turnip greens, cooked**1 cup170
Black bean soup, canned, condensed**1 cup170
Cream of wheat, instant, prepared**1 cup149
Beets, raw**1 cup148
Peanuts, dry roasted1 cup142 (1/3 cup is a more likely serving, ~47 at that serving size)
Spinach, cooked**1 cup136
Hazelnuts or filberts, chopped1 cup130 (1/3 cup is a more likely serving, ~43 at that serving size)
Kidney beans*1 cup109
Broccoli, frozen*1 cup105
Okra, frozen*1/2 cup slices92
Potatoes, russet, baked*1 3-4″ diameter potato78
Almonds, dry roasted*1 cup76 (1/3 cup is a more likely serving, ~25 at that serving size)
Peas and carrots, frozen*1 cup72
Mangos, raw*1 cup71
Oranges, raw, valencias*1 cup sections70
Cabbage, cooked*1 cup70
Collards, frozen*1/3 of 10 ounce package69
Summer Squash, zucchini*1 cup68
Pumpkin or squash seeds, roasted1 cup67 (1/3 cup is a more likely serving, ~22 at that serving size)
Whole wheat pasta, dry*1 cup spaghetti63
Spinach, raw1 cup58
Foods that were good* or excellent** sources of folate were included. An emphasis was placed on foods with naturally occurring folate over those enriched with folic acid due to the nature of this article. Those that are enriched are marked with an ***.

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Anne Marie Berggren RDN, MS, CDN, CNSC is a Registered Dietitian with a Master's Degree in Nutrition, training in integrative and functional nutrition, nutrition for mental health, obesity and weight management, is a board certified nutrition support clinician, and an adjunct professor for the Stony Brook Graduate Nutrition Program teaching advanced clinical nutrition.

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