Folate Vs. Folic Acid: Are They the Same Thing?

is folate the same as folic acid

Quick Health Scoop

  • Folate and folic acid are often used interchangeably, but they’re different in their origin, bioavailability, and how they work in the body
  • What is folate? Also called vitamin B9, folate is an essential water soluble vitamin naturally found in foods such as nuts, beans, leafy green vegetables, and citrus fruits
  • What is folic acid? This is a synthetic form of folate and it’s found in dietary supplements and fortified foods such as breads, breakfast cereals, and corn masa flour
  • Both men and women of all ages—but especially women of reproductive age—need folate and/or folic acid in their diet

You probably know that pregnant women should take folic acid, especially since adequate folic acid as part of a healthy diet may reduce the risk of having a child with a neural tube defect. But the benefits of folic acid (a.k.a. folate) extend to men and women of all ages. 

But wait—is folate the same as folic acid?

Although people often use the terms interchangeably, they’re not exactly the same thing. Yes, both folate and folic acid provide a variety of health benefits. But there’s a difference between folate and folic acid—namely, where they originate. And when it comes to the body’s ability to absorb these nutrients, one actually “performs” better, or is more bioavailable to the body. 

Let’s dig in to learn more about folate versus folic acid.

What Is Folate?

Also known as vitamin B9, folate is a more generic term that encompasses the vitamin’s different forms, including folic acid, dihydrofolate (DHF), tetrahydrofolate (THF), 5, 10-methylenetetrahydrofolate (5, 10-MTHF), and 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF).

While you don’t need to understand the chemistry behind it all, you do need to know that folate is naturally found in foods.1 Specifically, you can find folate in foods such as beef liver, beans, nuts, certain vegetables (especially leafy green vegetables),  papaya, citrus fruits and their juices.2,3,4

Learn More: Tips on How to Eat Healthy

What Is Folic Acid? 

Folic acid is simply a synthetic form of folate, and not naturally found in foods. Although folic acid is not naturally found in foods, it is found in dietary supplements and is added to fortified foods such as breads, pasta, rice, breakfast cereals, and corn masa flour.4

What Is The Difference Between Folate And Folic Acid?

As mentioned above, the big difference between folate vs. folic acid is that one occurs naturally in food (folate) and the other is manufactured (folic acid). But another major difference is the nutrient’s stability and bioavailability.

Naturally occurring folate rapidly loses activity in foods over periods of days or weeks. This results in a significant loss of biochemical activity—up to 50-75 percent—during the harvesting, storage, processing, and preparation processes, while folic acid is almost completely stable for months or even years.5 Because folate breaks down more readily with heat and light, manufacturers often fortify foods with folic acid instead, since many of these products, such as bread, are baked.6

What does this mean? Because folate’s stability and bioavailability is significantly reduced, it’s harder for the body to digest, absorb, and metabolize it. In contrast, folic acid is much more stable and bioavailable, making it easier to digest, absorb, and metabolize in the body.5

In addition, compared to the folate added to fortify some foods, the folic acid in supplements is actually better absorbed than that from food sources—85% vs. 50%, respectively.7

What Are The Benefits of Folate Vs. Folic Acid?

No matter which form you take—folate or folic acid—this water-soluble B vitamin provides a variety of health benefits to both men, women and children. Most notably, folate is known for ensuring the healthy development of a developing baby’s nervous system. In fact, the CDC recommends that all women of reproductive age take a daily dose of 400 mcg of folic acid to help reduce the risk of having a child with a neural tube defect.3 But folic acid health benefits extend to men, women, and children of all ages by helping cells divide, aiding protein metabolism, producing red blood cells, and making DNA and other genetic material.4,8 †

Learn More: Do You Need to Take Prenatal Vitamins?

The Bottom Line

Are folate and folic acid the same? Not quite, although they’re both considered vitamin B9. The main difference between folate vs. folic acid is that one occurs naturally in food (folate) and the other is the synthetic derived (folic acid). But another key difference is that folate is chemically less stable and less bioavailable, than folic acid, making it more difficult for the body to digest, absorb, and metabolize this important nutrient. While you can get folate naturally through healthy foods, you can also get folic acid in supplements such as Nature Made’s Folic Acid (B9) supplement, Multivitamins, Prenatal, Postnatal and many of our B-complex supplements, as well as fortified foods.

Continue to check back on the Nature Made blog for the latest science-backed articles to help you take ownership of your health.

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This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to serve as medical advice or a recommendation for any specific product. Consult your health care provider for more information. 

† These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

References 

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “General Information About NTDs, Folic Acid, and Folate.” April 11, 2018. Accessed on: August 13, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/folicacid/faqs/faqs-general-info.html
  2. Oregon State University Linus Pauling Institute. “Folate.” December 2014. Accessed on: August 12, 2021. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/vitamins/folate
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Folic Acid.” April 19, 2021. Accessed on: August 12, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/folicacid/about.html
  4. National Institutes of Health. “Folate.” March 22, 2021. Accessed on: August 12, 2021. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Folate-Consumer/
  5. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. “Human Vitamin and Mineral Requirements, Chapter 4: Folate and folic acid.” 2001. Accessed on: August 13, 2021. http://www.fao.org/3/y2809e/y2809e.pdf
  6. The Journal of Nutrition. “Properties of food folates determined by stability and susceptibility to intestinal pteroylpolyglutamate hydrolase action.” November 1998. Accessed on: August 13, 2021. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9808649/
  7. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Folate (Folic Acid) – Vitamin B9.” 2021. Accessed on: August 12, 2021. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/folic-acid/
  8. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. “Folate and Folic Acid on the Nutrition and Supplement Facts Labels.” June 29, 2020. Accessed on: August 12, 2021. https://www.fda.gov/food/new-nutrition-facts-label/folate-and-folic-acid-nutrition-and-supplement-facts-labels