Folic acid is used by the body for cellular reproduction. It helps produce DNA and RNA and helps form hemoglobin with vitamin B12. There is some support that it may help protect against heart disease, in part due to its role in controlling plasma homocysteine levels. Pregnant women are recommended to focus on folic acid, especially during the first trimester, because consuming adequate amounts decreases the risk of neural tube defects, like Spina Bifida or Anencephaly, in babies.
There are big consequences if you do not get enough, which is why many foods like cereal or juice are fortified with folic acid. A deficiency affects how your body makes cells, and synthesizes proteins. It leads to impaired growth or even lifetime paralysis. Even a mild deficiency may result in anemia. People with malabsorptive diseases, alcohol dependence, or are pregnant/lactating are at the highest risk. However, consuming excess amounts has no benefit and may cause problems with medications or hide a B12 deficiency. Additionally, folic acid can interact with anticonvulsant medications. The Tolerable Upper Limit (UL) is 1000 micrograms daily for adults and for teens it is 800 micrograms.
Folic acid/ Folate is found in fortified cereal, spinach, orange juice, lentils, peanuts, green leafy vegetables, avocados, beans and enriched grain products must be fortified, as well as in many supplements.
So how much do you need?
- Males 14: 400 mcg/ daily
- Females 14-50: 400 mcg/ daily
- Pregnant females: 600 mcg/daily
- Lactation: 500 mcg/daily
Furthermore, the way your body uses folate and folic acid varies slightly, and is accommodated for in dietary folate equivalents (DFE). 1 DFE = 1 mcg food folate = 0.6 mcg of folic acid from fortified food or as a supplement consumed with food
Keep in mind the FDA does not require food labels to list folate content unless a food has been fortified with this nutrient.
5 Good Sources of Folic Acid
1. Breakfast cereals
Although technically most breakfast cereals have folic acid added to them and folic acid is not naturally occurring, they are still the top way to get folic acid into the diet. By fortifying foods and adding nutrients to them, there have been huge health improvements with the general population, especially with decreasing the rates of neural tube defects. A huge percentage of cereals have all the daily recommended folic acid needed for adults in one serving (400+ mcg). Other fortified foods like breads, rice or baked goods are also high in folic acid.
Liver is an amazing organ and full of nutrients because it is an good source of protein, vitamin A, iron, trace elements, B vitamins, and best of all, some of the highest amounts of folic acid! Duck and goose liver has 738.00 mcg of folate in 100g serving. However, if you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant, consult with your doctor before you consume organ meats.
3. Cowpeas (southern beans, blackeye peas)
In 100 gram serving of cowpeas you have 633 micrograms of folic acid, as well as 24 grams of protein, 11g of fiber and 46% of your daily needs for iron! These tasty beans go well in many different meals including soups, bean salad, traditional southern cooking and other cultural meals. Luckily, if you prefer other types of beans or lentils, most are also great sources of folic acid!
4. Peanut butter or raw peanuts
In a 2-tablespoon serving of peanut butter, you'll find 119 mcg of folate and 76 mcg of folic acid. Peanut butter is also a good source of vitamin A, niacin, vitamin B6, iron, copper and magnesium. However, it is a calorically dense food, so use in moderation, keeping in mind portion sizes.
5. Red peppers
Red peppers are sweet and delicious but also a very nutrient dense food! In 1 ounce serving you have 65 mcg of folate, 438% of your daily value of vitamin A, 898% daily value of vitamin C and only 89 calories! Eat these alone as a snack for a sweet crunch or added to salads, stir-fry or soups!
Emily DeLacey MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian and currently working in Jamaica as a HIV/ AIDS Prevention Specialist. She attended Central Washington University for her Bachelor's Degree in Science and Dietetics and continued on after her internship to Kent State University for her Master's Degree in Science and Nutrition, with a focus on public health and advocacy. She served as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi 2012-2014 working as a Community Health Advisor in a rural village, immersing in the joys of life without electricity or running water. She has been to 20+ countries and 47 of the 50 states in the US. Traveling, adventuring and experiencing new cultures has made her a passionate advocate for the equality of nutrition and wellness for all people.