One of most important decisions you’ll make during early pregnancy, or when trying to conceive, is how you’re going to get all vitamins and minerals you need to keep yourself and your baby healthy.
Most Moms-to-be take a prenatal supplement to cover all the bases and ensure they’re not lacking in anything important.
Folic acid is a form of Vitamin B9 and is always at the top of the list of necessary vitamins to take daily during pregnancy (1).
While doing your research about which vitamins and minerals you need you may have heard about some recent controversy around artificial folic acid and whether it’s better to take the natural form – folate – instead.
Here we’re going to explore the differences between folic acid and folate, look at the most recent research on the topic and weigh up which type is the safer form during pregnancy.
The Importance of Vitamin B9
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regularly publishes research that shows why folic acid is important (2). It helps cells to divide and grow.
This is especially important during the first three months of pregnancy when sperm and egg meet and begin to divide and grow new cells to create an embryo.
Crucially, folic acid is known to significantly reduce the chance of birth defects in babies.
Folic acid is often called folate, and many people (including some health professionals) will say that folic acid is just the bottled supplement form of folate; even your obstetrician might tell you that folic acid and folate are exactly the same thing.
But if you look closely, there is actually a difference between the two.
What is Folate?
Folate is a group of B vitamins, also called B9. It’s an essential nutrient for all human beings, and most people get enough of it from their diet when they’re not pregnant.
It can be metabolized easily and naturally by the body, and is processed along with all the other food that you eat.
Folate naturally occurs in lots of vegetables, fruit and plant proteins, including:
- Dark leafy greens, like kale and spinach
- Citrus fruits
- Beans and pulses
- Seeds and nuts
What is Folic Acid?
Folic acid is the oxidized, synthetic version of folate which is used to make supplements. It’s made in a lab, where it goes through a chemical process combining it with oxygen.
Because of the incredible importance of healthy folate levels in mothers for the development of their babies, public health strategies (3) have been in place since 1990 which mean folic acid is added to certain foods, including white flour — and that means it makes its way into most of the baked goods you buy too.
Unlike natural folate, which is processed and metabolized in the small intestine along with other nutrients, folic acid is first processed by the liver.
This can mean that when you take high levels of folic acid in supplement form, unnaturally high levels of unmetabolized folic acid enters into your circulatory system (4).
Which is Better – Folic Acid or Folate?
Recent research (5) suggests that although it’s thought to be safe to take folic acid while you’re trying to conceive and during early pregnancy, taking folic acid in late pregnancy could put your unborn child at risk of allergies.
And some studies (6) have caused deeper concern — there is some evidence that folic acid supplements could make certain types of cancer worse.
It’s generally accepted that it won’t do you any harm to take a bit-too-much of most of the water-soluble vitamin supplements you can buy in the pharmacy.
If you take too much, your body excretes the excess through your urine.
But this doesn’t happen with folic acid: if you take more than your body is able to process, the excess ends up in your bloodstream (7).
There are no such concerns about naturally occurring folate.
It’s a vital and healthy part of anyone’s diet, and increasing your intake of folate during any stage of pregnancy is good for you and your growing baby.
If your obstetrician recommends you take folic acid supplements and you’re happy to do so, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t go ahead.
But be aware that it is not advisable to carry on taking folic acid into late pregnancy. Ask your doctor to discuss with you how much you should take and when you should stop taking it.
But taking natural folate will provide you and your baby with the same benefits of folic acid — without any of the potential risks.
For that reason, we recommend choosing folate instead of folic acid.
How do you take folate?
In early pregnancy your body needs twice the amount of folate as usual to support the growth of your tiny baby. That’s a lot of extra folate! So it’s really important to make sure you’re getting enough of the stuff.
It is possible to consume enough naturally occurring folate in the food you eat — even when you’re pregnant. To do this, you’ll have to pay close attention to your diet and make sure you include lots of foods which are high in folate — the Dietitians of Canada website provides a useful, comprehensive list (8).
You could print it off and keep it in your kitchen as a reminder to add some of these foods to every meal you eat.
Women taking folic acid during pregnancy are advised to choose supplements containing 400-600 mcg (9).
When relying on natural folate, it’s advisable to aim higher than that — around 800-1200 mcg (10).
And because you need so much of it during pregnancy, it can be difficult to include enough high-folate foods in your daily diet.
For this reason, it’s a good idea to take a natural folate supplement as well as eating healthy, nutritious meals.
There are a few different brands of prenatal supplements that use naturally sourced vitamins and minerals rather than artificial ones.
The one I like to use is the Mama Bird prenatal supplement, which contains everything you need including folate (vitamin B9) – all in their natural form.
The best way to remember to your supplement every day is to include it in your morning routine; take it with your breakfast and you’ll be all set for the day.
We hope we’ve covered all your questions about whether folic acid or folate is the better choice in pregnancy.