Foods with folic acid

Dear Alice,

What foods contain folic acid?

— The Bee

Dear The Bee,

Great question! Folic acid, which is the synthetic form of vitamin B9 (folate), is critical for processes such as red blood cell formation and healthy cell growth. It’s claim to fame, however, is likely due to its recommended use early in pregnancy to reduce the risk of brain and spine birth defects. The good news is that there are a number of tasty choices for foods rich in folic acid. Read on for more information about folate and how you can get the recommended amounts.

To start, it might be good to have a better understanding of how the body uses folate and folic acid. Though more research is needed, a few different studies have suggested that folic acid may reduce the risk of heart disease, slow the progression of age-related hearing loss, reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration, improve depression (for those low in the nutrient), and protect against certain types of cancer. It may also help with tissue growth, red blood cell formation, and the break down, use, and creation of proteins. Folate is also critical in the three months before and during the first trimester of pregnancy as it lowers the risk of infants having neural tube birth defects (which can result in conditions such as cleft palate or spina bifida).

Having low levels of folate is more common among those who have a history of alcohol use disorder, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and celiac disease. Being deficient in folate may cause blood disorders that include symptoms such as weakness, fatigue, trouble concentrating, irritability, headache, and heart palpitations. So, how much is needed on a day-to-day basis? For adults, the daily recommendation is 400 micrograms (mcg) of folate or folic acid (those who are pregnant are advised to get a bit extra at 600 to 1,000 mcg a day). It’s recommended that most people get an adequate amount of this nutrient from the foods they eat. Foods rich in folate include:

  • Dark green, leafy vegetables, such as mustard greens and spinach
  • Fruits such as oranges, lemons, bananas, melons, and strawberries
  • Whole grains
  • Peanuts, beans, peas, sunflower seeds
  • Beef liver
  • Folate fortified foods such as some breads, cereal, and pasta
  • Seafood

While folate plays a crucial role in the body’s functioning, it's possible to have too much of a good thing. Generally speaking, if there’s a concern that folate intake is low, it’s recommended that the decision to take folic acid supplements be done under the supervision of a health care provider. Though rare, side effects associated with too much folic acid include nausea, difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, and confusion. Folic acid supplements may also interact with certain medications such as anticonvulsants, barbiturates, and certain cancer or antimalarial treatments.

It’s great that you’re making sure to get the necessary nutrients. Hopefully, with this information, you’re poised to curate a tasty, folic acid-rich plate. For general information on nutrient intake, check out the Go Ask Alice! Nutrition and Physical Activity archives. As you explore what your body needs specifically, you may consider speaking with a health care provider or registered dietitian to further inform your individual nutritional needs.

Last updated Apr 08, 2022
Originally published Oct 27, 1995

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