By Kathy Garvey, MS, MBA, RDN, LDN (www.garveynutrition.com)
Suppose you have been advised to avoid foods with folic acid due to your body’s impaired ability to break down the vitamin. You may feel overwhelmed trying to navigate the grocery store and make intelligent choices. It can seem unclear at first, but with some guidance and some keen label reading, you will soon be cruising through those aisles, making healthy choices with ease.
What is the difference between folate and folic acid? And why is our food fortified with folic acid?
The terms folate and folic acid are often used interchangeably, but there is a distinct difference between the two. Folate is the naturally occurring form of vitamin B9 and is found in foods such as leafy greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, and avocado. Folic acid is the synthetic form of vitamin B9 and is used in supplements and added to flour and processed food products such as bread, pasta, and cereals.
In 1992, the U.S. Public Health Service recommended that women of childbearing age get 400 micrograms of folic acid daily to prevent neural tube birth defects. In 1998, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration took this a step further and required that manufacturers add folic acid to cereal grain products labeled as “enriched.” This means most of the bread, pasta, rice, baked goods, and cereals on supermarket shelves contain folic acid. If you glance at the label of a loaf of bread or a box of pasta, you will see the first ingredient as “enriched wheat flour.” White rice is typically enriched with folic acid and marketed as such on the front of the package.
So, how do you avoid it?
- Choose grains that are ORGANIC or GLUTEN FREE.
Neither organic nor gluten-free manufacturers are required to include folic acid in their products. This is probably the easiest way to avoid products enriched with folic acid.
- Check your rice packaging.
Most white rice has added folic acid and is labeled as enriched, but not all. Brown rice is not enriched with folic acid. Here in Louisiana, two local brands make delicious rice without folic acid – Jazzmen Brand (with both a brown and white Jasmine rice option) and Parish Rice (a lower glycemic/higher protein rice option.)
Many products list “enriched flour” as one of the first ingredients, but some products – specifically breakfast cereals and some packaged soups – list folic acid separately further down on that ingredient list. If you are not choosing organic or gluten-free, check the whole list of ingredients.
- Be aware of which products to investigate.
It’s not just bread, but all products made from flours you want to review for the ingredients “enriched ____” and “folic acid.” These include baked goods, crackers, pasta, pizza crust, bread crumbs, and anything claiming to be fortified.
What about foods high in natural folate?
It is beneficial to continue to include foods higher in natural folate as part of a healthy diet. These sources of natural folate are also rich in fiber, antioxidants, and other micronutrients our bodies need to support a variety of essential functions. Here are the best sources of natural folate to include:
|Legumes (beans, peas, lentils)
||Varies – 131-358 mcg per 1 cup
||134 mcg per ½ cup cooked
|Dark, leafy greens (kale, arugula, spinach)
||58-263 mcg per ½ cup cooked
||84 mcg per ½ cup cooked
||82 mcg per ½ avocado
||74 mcg per ½ cup
||71 mcg per cup
||55 mcg per fruit
||47 mcg per ½ cup cooked
|Nuts and seeds
||Varies – 24-28 mcg per 1 oz
||24 mcg per fruit
||22 mcg per egg
Depending on your MTHFR polymorphism and nutritional habits, it may be necessary to supplement with methylated B vitamins.
Contact a Registered Dietitian for advice if you are still unsure, have questions, or want additional guidance on specific brands.