Here comes the science...

Here at Go Folic! we try to keep things simple, but we know some of you will want to know more... So, we asked Sian Astley (pictured)  to introduce the science behind our favourite B Vitamin, also known as Vitamin B9, folic acid or folate..... 

What is folate?

Folate(s) are a family of B-group vitamins found in food. The B-group vitamins are:

  • Vitamin B1 (thiamine)
  • Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
  • Vitamin B3 (niacin or niacinamide, sometimes also known as vitamin PP)
  • Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)
  • Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine, pyridoxal, or pyridoxamine, or pyridoxine hydrochloride)
  • Vitamin B7 (biotin)
  • Vitamin B8 (inositol)
  • Vitamin B9 (folate)
  • Vitamin B12 (various cobalamins; commonly cyanocobalamin in supplements)

Amongst other things, the B-vitamins maintain healthy skin and muscle tone, enhance immune and nervous system function, and promote cell growth and division. They are water-soluble and found throughout the body.

Folates provide the most basic chemical building block for DNA, proteins and lipids, and they are vital for making new cells, which is why women need a ready supply early in their pregnancy for the rapidly growing and developing baby, as well as themselves.

Folates are found in a wide variety of different foods but the best sources include yeast extract and green leafy vegetables such as spinach and Brussels sprouts. Smaller amounts are found in broccoli, spring greens, cabbage, parsnips and oranges. The main sources of folic acid are supplements and fortified foods.

What is folic acid?

Folic acid is a synthetic pro-vitamin, which the body can easily absorb and convert to folate(s). Pro-vitamins have little or no benefit alone but are converted to the vitamin – in this case folate – by the body as part of normal metabolism. Other examples include pro-vitamin B5 (panthenol), which may be converted to pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) and beta-carotene, which makes carrots orange but can be split in two to form vitamin A.

Folic acid is more easily absorbed by the body, and cheaper and more stable in processed foods than naturally occurring food folates. In the UK, fortification – addition of folic acid to manufactured food products – is voluntary and unregulated. Foods that are fortified with folic acid include breakfast cereals and some brands of reduced or low-fat spreads. For some people, these foods and dietary supplements make up the greater proportion of their total folate intake because they do not like or do not eat foods rich in natural food folates.

Are folates and folic acid the same?

Folates/ food folates and folic acid are often used interchangeably although they are not strictly the same thing; folates are the naturally occurring B-vitamin whilst folic acid is a synthetic pro-vitamin, which means the body must metabolise/ change the structure before it can be used. However, the term folic acid is often assumed to include food folates in scientific and medical literature as well as the media and food manufacturing and retail. For example, some labels state foods are high in folic acid when in fact they contain high levels of natural food folates and not folic acid (e.g. Brussels sprouts) whilst others contain only folic acid (e.g. breakfast cereal).

Is folic acid safe and can I eat enough folates to avoid supplements?

Women who could become pregnant are advised to take 400 micrograms (mcg) folic acid each day as a medicinal or food supplement as well as eating plenty of folate-rich foods, prior to conception and until the 12th week of pregnancy. Women with a neural tube defect (NTD, e.g. spina bifida) or with a family history of NTD including the father and/ or the father’s family, as well as Type-1 and Type-2 diabetics, should take 5mg per day.

Women who are taking anti-epileptic medication and may become pregnant should contact their neurology specialist immediately as they might need a higher dose of folic acid or a change of medication.

PLEASE NOTE: Whilst as scientifically acurate as possible, the information above is of a general nature and we recommend individuals consult their family doctor for a medical opinion.



Siân Astley PhD - European Communications Manager for the Institute of Food Research


 Chemical structure of folic acid - Based on Lucock et al., 1995

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Go Folic! is led by:

Spina bifida • Hydrocephalus • Information • Networking • Equality - SHINE (Registered Charity No 249338), covering England, Northern Ireland and Wales. Scotland is covered by the Scottish Spina Bifida Association - SSBA (Scottish Charity No SC 013328).

Our special thanks go to the Go Folic! Women's Nutrition Project in San Francisco for their inspiration and support.