I remember in home economics when our teacher told us that all the vitamins and minerals we needed on a daily basis could fit on the head of a pin. I never understood why some multivitamin pills were so large, but I figured it had something to do with how they extracted the vitamins from plants and mashed them together into a Flintstones-shaped tablet.
Oh, to be young and ignorant again and believe that vitamins are actually coming from plants! How wrong I was…
I’ve been working in the supplement industry for the past four years and I’ve discovered that the majority of vitamins are not sourced from plants, but rather cooked up in a lab. In a good many cases, the synthetic and natural forms of vitamins are structurally similar to the point where the difference hasn’t been proven to matter. For others, like folate/folic acid, the difference is critical.
The term “folate”, also known as vitamin B9, actually refers to a group of water-soluble B vitamins.
Folate is absolutely essential for good health, and it’s especially important for pregnant women, as it helps prevent neural tube birth defects. Folate helps keep homocysteine levels in check (a marker of heart health) and is important for DNA and RNA formation.
The natural form of folate is called tetrahydrofolate, and it’s found mainly in green leafy vegetables.
Folic acid, on the other hand, is the synthetic, fully oxidized form of folate. It doesn’t occur in nature and is the most common form found in fortified foods and supplements.
Almost all refined grain products like breads and cereals have been fortified with folic acid, and if you eat any sort of nutrition bar or take a multivitamin, you’re likely getting additional folic acid from those products.
While the Recommended Dietary Allowance for adults is 400 mcg, it’s possible to be getting up to 900 mcg if you regularly eat fortified foods and take supplements.
The problem is new research is suggesting that if too much folic acid builds up in the body, it might be bad for your health.
Some studies are showing that excessive amounts of folic acid may contribute to colon cancer risk, cognitive decline, and decreased immune system function.
And not only is our consumption of folic acid increasing, but some people have trouble converting folic acid to a form the body can use, making it even more important to monitor folic acid intake. Up to 39% of the population may have difficulty converting folic acid to the form the body can use, due to a mutation of the MTHFR gene.
If your insurance will cover it, it’s worth getting checked for this at your next doctor’s appointment, especially if you have a history of elevated homocysteine levels. High homocysteine has been linked to the MTHFR mutation.
If you do have the MTHFR gene mutation, or want to play it safe and avoid folic acid anyway, many doctors suggest you supplement with only the tetrahydrofolate form. Look for the Metafolin brand or brands that list “5-methyltetrahydrofolate” or “5-MTHF” on the label. Quatrefolic is another brand to look for.
In general, it’s always best to get vitamins and minerals from naturally occurring food sources. If you eat lots of green leafy vegetables every day, you’re not likely to be deficient in folate.
If you do take supplements or eat lots of nutrition bars or vitamin water-type drinks, be sure to check the labels. If they are fortified with folic acid, you may want to cut back on your consumption of these items, unless your doctor tells you otherwise.
To living well,
 Folate Supplementation: Too Much of a Good Thing? Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. February 2006 15; 189.
 Common Mutation in Methylenetetrahydrofolate Reductase Circulation.1996; 94: 3074-3078.