This B vitamin is actually a family of compounds that work in concert with vitamin B12 to make the genetic material that directs cell division. Folate is therefore especially important during periods of growth, including pregnancy. Along with vitamins B6 and B12, it may also protect against cardiovascular disease (see below).
The best sources of folate are vegetables and grains—especially wheat germ, enriched and whole-grain breads, fortified cereals, dark-green leafy vegetables, and dried beans and peas. Most meats, except for liver and kidney, are poor in folate.
Getting too little folate has been linked to several health problems:
One large study showed that women taking vitamin pills containing folate
had fewer babies with neural-tube defects such as spina bifida. The Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) recommends "that all women capable of becoming
pregnant consume 400 micrograms of folate from supplements or fortified
foods, in addition to intake of food folate from a varied diet. It is
assumed that women will continue consuming this 400 micrograms from supplements
or fortified food until their pregnancy is confirmed and they enter prenatal
care, which ordinarily occurs after the end of the periconceptional period—the
critical time for formation of the neural tube."
anemia (enlarged red blood cells), whose symptoms include diarrhea
and smooth tongue.
Cardiovascular disease. If your diet is low in folate and other B vitamins, your blood is likely to be high in an amino acid called homocysteine. A certain amount of homocysteine is good—it helps your body turn food into energy. Higher levels, however, can damage blood-vessel linings and enhance blood clotting, leading to heart attack or stroke. For this reason, some authorities advise people at risk of cardiovascular disease to get more than the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of folate, which is by far the most protective of the B vitamins. The question is under intense study and should make headlines over the next few years. (Check Diet Power's Nutrition Update page for the latest.)
Alcoholics sometimes develop folate deficiencies because they get too many of their calories from alcohol and not enough from food.
Because it is stored in the body, folate needn't be consumed every day.
Getting too much folate is not known to be harmful, although it can mask a vitamin-B12 shortage. Because high doses are poorly studied, however, the FNB recommends caution.
Your Daily Allowance
Diet Power sets your Personal Daily Allowance (PDA) of folate at the FNB's Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA), measured in micrograms: 400 for males and females 14* and older, 600 for pregnant women, and 500 for women who are lactating.
The Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) for folate, in micrograms per day, is 800 for people 14 to 18 years old and 1000 for people 19 and older, regardless of their reproductive state. The UL applies only to synthetic folate obtained from supplements or fortified foods, however.
Folate vs. Folic Acid
Fortified foods and supplements usually contain folic acid, a synthetic form of folate. Since folic acid is more readily absorbed by the body, one microgram is equivalent to about 2 micrograms of folate. This can present problems when you are adding a food to the dictionary by keying in nutrient values from the label. Here's what to do:
If the label cites
only "folate," enter the figure as shown.
If the label cites
"dietary folate equivalents (DFEs)," enter that figure as the
If the label cites only "folic acid," double the amount shown and enter the result as the folate content.
Revising Your Allowance
If your doctor recommends a different PDA, you can change it with the Personal Daily Allowance Editor.
Color Coding of This Nutrient
The folate bar in your personal Nutrient History is:
for "good" if you've logged 100 to 150 percent of your PDA
for "bad" if you've logged less than 100 percent of your PDA
for "caution" if you've logged more than 150 percent of your
missing if you've logged no folate
In the nutrient profile of a food or recipe, the folate bar is:
for "good" if getting your entire PDA of calories from this
item would give you more than 150 percent of your PDA of folate
for "bad" if getting all your calories from the item would give
you less than 50 percent of your PDA of folate
for "neutral" otherwise
missing if the amount of folate is either zero or (when the term Folate is grayed out) unknown
How Complete Are Diet Power's Folate Readings?
For the 8500 generic items in the Food Dictionary: fairly complete. Only 8 percent list their folate content as "unknown."
For the 2500 chain-restaurant items: totally incomplete. All list folate as "unknown."
For all 11,000 items combined: not terribly complete. About 29 percent list folate as "unknown."
These figures mean that if you frequently log chain-restaurant foods (or user-added foods with missing folate readings), your Nutrient History may underreport your intake of folate by a few points.
To see whether a particular food has a folate reading, open the Food Dictionary and check the food's nutrient profile. If you find a question mark beside "Folate," it means the amount is unknown. (To see all foods with unknown folate readings, click the dictionary's PowerFoods tab and sort the foods by folate power; then scroll toward the bottom of the list until you see foods with question marks in the "Power Rating" column.)
Folate on Food Labels
Food labels are not required to report folate, but some do voluntarily. They may cite the content in micrograms or percent of Daily Value (DV), or both. (Fortified foods and supplements may report the content of folic acid instead of folate. See "Folate vs. Folic Acid," above.)
The Daily Value for folate is 400 micrograms. That amount isn't necessarily right for you, however—it's a rough estimate meant to cover most of the U.S. population.
For more on label regulations, see Labels, Food.
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Last Modified: 7/27/07