What is folic acid?

Find out which foods provide this B vitamin, how much we need, its role in pregnancy and how it differs from folate, its naturally occurring form.

Selection of ingredients and folic acid tablets

Folic acid is a water-soluble B vitamin which is easily broken down by the body. This means you are unable to store the vitamin over time and it is excreted in the urine. It is a man-made vitamin that is found in supplements and is added to foods such as breakfast cereals and reduced-fat spreads.

Always speak to your GP or healthcare provider before taking a new supplement or if you are concerned about nutritional deficiencies.

What is the difference between folic acid and folate?

Folate is the naturally occurring form of folic acid that is found in food. Folic acid is the synthetic form of this vitamin, which is added to supplements and some foods.

Why do we need folic acid?

Both folate and folic acid play an important role in our bodies. They are essential in the formation of red blood cells, DNA formation, nerve function and cell metabolism. Deficiency of folic acid can cause macrocytic anaemia – a type of anaemia that results from an insufficient ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen.

Neural tube defects (NTDs) such as spina bifida and anencephaly have been linked to folic acid deficiency, as folic acid is critical during periods of rapid cell growth and division (such as during pregnancy). This is why an adequate intake of folic acid is essential just before and just after pregnancy.

Read more about how to eat a healthy pregnancy diet.

In addition, along with vitamin B12, folic acid lowers homocysteine, an amino acid which is a building block of protein. Homocysteine is a by-product of the conversion of methionine to cysteine and elevated levels are an independent risk factor for heart disease.

Healthy diet for pregnancy - pregnant lady with bowl of salad

How much folic acid do we need and what are the effects of consuming too much?

Adults and children over 11 years old need 200mcg of folate a day. Women who are trying to conceive and those in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy should take 400mcg of folate to prevent neural tube defects.

For breastfeeding women, 260mcg is recommended. For women who have had a pregnancy previously affected by neural tube defects, a higher level (5mg/d) of folate from preconception to up to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy is recommended. This should always be confirmed with your doctor.

It is very difficult to consume too much folic acid through eating foods, unless you take more than the recommended supplement dose. In the UK, a guidance level for folic acid has been set for adults at 1mg a day based on concerns that intakes above this level may mask signs of vitamin B12 deficiency. 

Which foods are good sources of folate?

Rich sources of folate include spinach, kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, beans and legumes (e.g. peas, black-eyed beans), yeast and beef extracts, oranges and orange juice, wheat bran and other wholegrain foods. Poultry, pork, shellfish and liver, as well as some brands of fortified breakfast cereals, are also sources.

Spicy chicken salad with broccoli

Recipes that are high in folate

Black-eyed bean mole with salsa
Spring chicken in a pot
Spicy chicken salad with broccoli
Seafood tagine

More on vitamins

Five nutrients every woman needs
Vital vitamins
Healthy pregnancy diet
What is vitamin B12?
The best sources of vitamin C
Am I getting enough vitamin D?


This article was published on 18th June 2019.

Emer Delaney BSc (Hons), RD has an honours degree in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Ulster. She has worked as a dietitian in some of London's top teaching hospitals and is currently based in Chelsea.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Lead photo: Getty Images

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