Folic acid, also known as folate, is a water soluble B-group vitamin carried through the bloodstream and excreted in urine. Because it is not stored in the human body we must consume folic acid every day in order to make sure our body has an adequate supply. Folic acid performs several vital functions in the body. These include:
- Synthesizing DNA and repairing RNA
- Aiding rapid cell division and growth
- Producing healthy red blood cells
- Preventing major birth defects of the brain or spine (neural tube defects)
Australian research has shown a reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease in those who maintain healthy folic acid levels. In addition, Dutch researchers report improved an information processing speed and memory after 3 years of folic acid supplementation.
Natural sources of folic acid
The recommended daily intake of folic acid is 400 micrograms (mcg) per day. However, because folic acid is affected by how foods are cooked and stored, it can be difficult to measure how much folic acid your diet provides. Research has shown though that most women don’t get enough folic acid, making supplementation important. Folic acid-rich foods include:
- Vegetables, including asparagus, broccoli, brussel sprouts and spinach
- Fruits, including oranges, bananas, strawberries, papaya and kiwi fruit
- Nuts, sunflower seeds and legumes, including chickpeas, dried beans and lentils
- Baker’s yeast and yeast extracts, such as Vegemite and Bonox
- Offal, including kidney and liver (pregnant women should not consume these)
Folic acid fortified foods
In order to boost national levels of folic acid consumption and help reduce the number of neural tube defects, in October 2009 the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Mandatory Folic Acid Fortification Standard was enacted.
This standard requires that all wheat flour used for bread making in Australia contain folic acid. As a result most bread sold in Australia, excluding organic bread, is fortified with folic acid. Many breakfast cereals and fruit juices sold in Australia are also fortified with folic acid.
Folic acid deficiency
Failure to consume sufficient folic acid can result in a folic acid deficiency. The symptoms of folic acid deficiency include fatigue, weakness, forgetfulness, irritability, loss of appetite and weight loss. Folic acid deficiency can occur more readily in those who:
- Require higher quantities of folic acid and are not taking them, such as pregnant and breastfeeding women
- Have medical problems, such as sickle cell disease
- Have difficulty absorbing folic acid, such as in the case of alcohol abuse or improper functioning kidneys
- Are taking medications which raise the risk of folic acid deficiency, such as birth control pills and medications used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, cancer and seizures