Folic acid is the synthetic ('man-made') form of folate, a B vitamin important for cell growth and reproduction.
What are folate and folic acid?
Folate is found naturally in leafy green 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 your body to absorb and use folic acid than naturally occurring folate in food.
Why is folate/folic acid important?
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. Read about folic acid/folate in pregnancy.
Folate deficiency can also lead to 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 and may also need to take folic acid supplements. Read about folic acid supplements.
Folic acid and 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 4 weeks before getting pregnant and to 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.
Women at high risk of a neural tube affected pregnancy (ie, women who have a history of neural tube defect personally, in their family or their partner’s family), take a higher dose of folic acid. Read more about folic acid/folate in pregnancy.
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 wholegrain
- well-washed, fresh, raw or lightly cooked vegetables, especially leafy green vegetables such as spinach, plus asparagus and corn
- cooked dried beans, peas and lentils
- yeast extracts, eg, Marmite and Vegemite
- freshly cooked liver and kidney (no more than 1 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. Read about folic acid supplements.
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 such as 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, NZ
- Food and nutrition guidelines for healthy pregnant and breastfeeding women in New Zealand Ministry of Health, NZ, 2009
- Folate and folic acid Ministry for Primary Industries. NZ