Folic acid and folate. Most people may think that these two are interchangeable but in reality, they are very different. Folate is a naturally occurring vitamin while folic acid is a synthetic form of the vitamin. Folate is a group of B vitamins that are referred to as B-9. Folic acid is the oxidized synthetic compound used in dietary supplements and fortified into foods.
Folate is found in several natural foods including; spinach, lentils, garbanzo beans, asparagus, romaine lettuce, mustard greens, parsley, citrus fruits, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, and collard greens. Folate aids in nervous system function and in developing red blood cells. It also is known for helping to prevent neural tube defects in newborns, so pregnant women are encouraged to have adequate amounts during pregnancy.
But did you know that for women past childbearing age, and for all men in general, too much of the synthetic form (folic acid) is not only unnecessary but may be harmful to your health?
One of the major risks associated with excessive intake of folic acid is the development of cancer! Studies have shown an increase in colon, prostate, and breast cancer with excess folic acid. What happens is that the folic acid which is unmetabolized in the blood becomes associated with decreases in natural killer cells which play a role in tumor cell destruction. Said another way, an excess of folic acid might promote premalignant and malignant lesions.
A high amount of folic acid may also make it difficult to detect a vitamin B12 deficiency which can lead to a deterioration of the central nervous system function, especially in the elderly. It can be easy to overdose on folic acid because it is slipped into breakfast cereals, breads, energy bars, and other snacks as well as in most multivitamins.
Folate, on the other hand, is known to reduce homocysteine levels in the body. When these levels are elevated it causes heart disease. It has been calculated that a 50mcg increase in folate a day could prevent 4,000 to 10,000 US deaths per year due to heart disease. And, you can’t overdose on folate.
Read labels!!! Check your cereals, sports drinks, and vitamins. Choose whole grain breads, pastas, and rice. Remember, real folate is protective while fake folate (folic acid) may be harmful.