What Is Folate (Folic Acid) Deficiency? (Your Folate Questions Answered)

What is folate?

Folate is a naturally occurring water-soluble form of vitamin B9. It is found in vegetables, fruit, eggs, and beef liver. It is important to all of us but is particularly important in the diets of children and pregnant or lactating women.

Folic acid is a form of folate that is often used in supplements and in fortified foods. The body converts the folic acid into folate so that your body can use it for many essential processes, which we’ll explore below. 

Why do we need folate?

The body requires folate for several crucial functions:

  • To make red and white blood cells in the bone marrow
  • To produce both DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and RNA (ribonucleic acid), the molecules that pack our genetic code
  • To convert carbohydrates into energy
  • To metabolise the amino acids needed for cell division

Folate is especially crucial for early growth and for pregnant women. Without a sufficient folate intake, pregnant women risk having babies with neural tube defects, such as spina bifida. Folate is necessary to ensure the neural tube (later to develop into the brain and spinal cord) is to close completely. If it doesn’t, the baby will have serious birth defects or die. That is why women going through pregnancy are advised to have a nutritious, balanced diet and take folic acid supplements.

That's just the start. Due to the role of folate in DNA synthesis, its effects span across so many aspects of health (all of our new cells have DNA right?!). Furthermore it plays a crucial role in regulating switching on genes which protect our health and turning off genes which damage our health. 

What is folate (folic acid) deficiency?

A deficiency can result in megaloblastic anemia, fatigue and lethargy, an inability to concentrate, heart palpitations, and shortness of breath. There are also neurological symptoms, including a feeling of pins and needles and tingling.

While these effects are common to most anaemias, folate deficiency can also include:

  • Reduced sense of taste
  • Diarrhoea
  • Numbness and tingling in the extremities
  • Muscle weakness
  • Depression

True folate deficiency is rare in the UK, but so many people in the UK don't get enough meaning there could be long term consequences that are hard to measure. Given the broad spanning functions of folate it's really important for every one of us to get enough folate and correct any folate/folic acid deficiency.

Where can folate be found in food?

While you might be advised to take a folic acid supplement if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, there are many foods rich in folate that can ensure you receive the recommended daily allowance. Adults require at least 200 micrograms (µg) of folate daily, that’s 0.2 milligrams (mg), but children from 9-13 need 300 mcg, pregnant women 600 µg, and breastfeeding women 500 µg.

The best nutritional sources of folate are:

  1. Legumes: Beans, peas and lentils are all great ways to get folate into your diet. For instance, a serving of peas has about 47 µg of folate and edamame beans have a massive 310 µg in 100g.
  2. Asparagus: 90g of asparagus carries more than 130 µg of folate plus antioxidants and healthy fibre. Asparagus is also delicious to eat.
  3. Beetroot: Beetroot contains nearly 150 µg of folate in an 135 g serving and has significant amounts of manganese, potassium, and vitamin C.
  4. Cruciferous Vegetables: Kale, broccoli and cauliflower are often hailed as superfoods and certainly contain plenty of folate, as do cabbage, Brussels sprouts and watercress. They are also full of other health-giving nutrients.
  5. Citrus Fruits: Oranges, lemons, grapefruit and limes are all rich in folate. A single orange has 55 µg of folate. And, of course, they also have tremendous amounts of vitamin C. It’s a good job they’re all delicious!
  6. Bananas: Well known for their potassium, bananas are also a good source of folate and incredibly convenient to carry as a snack. They also have good amounts of manganese and vitamin B6.
  7. Avocados: Another superfood, avocados are stuffed with folate with over 80 µg in every half. Like all these foods, avocados are also excellent carriers of other micronutrients such as potassium and vitamins B6, C and K.
  8. Nuts and seeds: Good for protein and fibre, but also high in folate, nuts and seeds are extremely healthy additions to your diet.

What is the difference between folic acid and folate?

Folate exists in natural and man-made forms. Folic acid is a man-made, synthetic form of folate. When ingested, it can be converted into folate. Methylfolate is a naturally occurring form of folate found in foods and also some supplements. Sometimes the terms folic acid and folate are used interchangeably.  

You can easily consume the folate you need by eating a healthy diet, but of course, this isn’t always easy! It’s a good idea to take a multivitamin that contains a healthy dose of folate (like our Ethical Multivitamin) to ensure you’re covered, even when your diet is less than perfect!