Folic acid is the man-made form of folate, a B vitamin important for cell growth and reproduction. Folic acid can help to ensure healthy development of babies in early pregnancy.
Why is folate/folic acid important?
Folate is a B vitamin important for cell growth and reproduction.
Folate is found naturally in leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, wholemeal bread, yeast, liver and legumes (peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas etc.)
Folic acid is the man-made (synthetic) form of folate used in supplements and fortified foods and drinks. It is easier for the body to absorb and use folic acid than naturally occurring food folate.
Folic acid can help to ensure the healthy development of babies in early pregnancy. Lack of folic acid has been linked with birth defects called neural tube defects, such as spina bifida.
Folate deficiency can result in a type of anaemia called megaloblastic anaemia.
Who is folate/folic acid important for?
Folate/folic acid is particularly important during pregnancy when cells are growing and dividing very quickly.
It is recommended that pregnant women or women who are planning to become pregnant take a folic acid supplement.
Older people and people on certain medications, including anticonvulsants and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) may be at risk of folate deficiency.
Folic acid & pregnancy
If you are planning a pregnancy or are pregnant, the Ministry of Health advice for most women is to take one 800 micrograms (mcg) folic acid tablet daily for at least four weeks before getting pregnant and continue taking the tablet daily until the end of week 12 of your pregnancy. If you find you are pregnant during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, you should take the tablet from that point until the end of week 12.
It is recommended that women at high risk of a neural tube affected pregnancy (i.e. women who have a history of neural tube defect personally, in family or partner’s family), take a higher dose of folic acid. A 5mg tablet is available, which can be bought from pharmacies (or at a lower cost when prescribed by your doctor or midwife). Ask your doctor or midwife which folic acid tablet is best for you and for a prescription.
If you are pregnant it is also important to eat foods which are naturally high in folate as part of a healthy balanced diet. Read more about folic acid/folate in pregnancy.
For other people affected by folate deficiency speak with your healthcare provider about the best supplement for you.
Where can I get folate/folic acid from?
Foods naturally high in folate or fortified with folic acid are:
- raw fruit, well-washed or peeled (citrus is especially high in folate)
- bread and cereals, especially whole grain
- well-washed, fresh, raw or lightly cooked vegetables, especially leafy green vegetables such as spinach, asparagus and corn
- cooked dried beans, peas and lentils
- yeast extracts, for example, marmite and vegemite
- freshly cooked liver and kidney (no more than one serving a week)
- folic acid-fortified breakfast cereals, bread or fruit juice.
It is best to eat fresh fruit and vegetables as cooking and prolonged storage destroys the folate.
Folic acid is also available as a supplement from pharmacies.
How much folic acid is in fortified foods?
Foods fortified with folic acid should state this on their ingredients list and/or Nutrition Information Panel (NIP). The food label will list any vitamins added (e.g. folic acid). The total amount of folate in the NIP includes the natural folate as well as the amount of folic acid that has been added.
- Folate/folic acid Ministry of Health
- Food and Nutrition Guidelines for Healthy Pregnant and Breastfeeding Women in NZ Ministry of Health (updated 2009)
- Folate and folic acid Ministry for Primary Industries