Why should we all include folic acid in our diet?

18 July 2023 | Comment(s) |

Emma Raposo

Folic acid is best known for its benefits during pregnancy. But did you know that this vitamin is a valuable supplement for all of us? But what is folic acid, and why is it so important for our bodies? Read on to find out.

Definition of folic acid

Folic acid, or folates, is a B group vitamin (vitamin B9). Naturally present in certain foods, it is known as dietary folate. It is found in green vegetables such as spinach, salad, broccoli and Brussels sprouts, to name but a few. Liver, pulses, wheat germ, soya and certain fruits such as kiwi fruit and strawberries are also good sources of folic acid. Synthetic folic acid is available in galenic form (tablets, capsules, etc.), or is added to various foods on the market known as fortified foods.

Interestingly, folic acid is absorbed differently depending on its form. Our bodies absorb only 50% of folate from food, whereas folic acid in its synthetic form is absorbed at 100%, and 85% from fortified foods. The term "folate equivalent" takes account of these differences. Therefore, 1 folate equivalent is equal to 1 microgram of dietary folate, or 0.5 microgram of galenic synthetic folic acid taken on an empty stomach, or 0.6 microgram of synthetic folic acid from fortified foods.

Let us also point out that the way in which food is stored and prepared will affect its dietary folate content, as vitamin B9 is sensitive to light and heat.

Why is folic acid so important for the body?

Folic acid plays a vital role in cell division and function. This is why it is essential to consume folic acid during the first few weeks of pregnancy, when the embryo's cells are dividing at a rapid rate, in order to prevent neural tube defects (NTDs) and other malformations.

But folic acid does not just benefit pregnant women. To a much greater extent, it helps to prevent a number of disorders that affect the population as a whole. A folic acid deficiency, for example, can lead to:

  • anaemia, i.e. a shortage of red blood cells;
  • an increase in the level of homocysteine (an amino acid) in the blood, which is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Folic acid could also play a protective role against:

  • certain cancers (colon, breast or prostate);
  • psychological disorders such as depression ;
  • certain age-related pathologies such as dementia, Alzheimer's disease and osteoporosis;
  • skin ageing, by helping to renew skin cells.

How much folic acid should we consume every day?

The Swiss Folic Acid Foundation (Stiftung Folsäure), a foundation that aims to inform and raise awareness among the Swiss population and which is supported by Fondation Groupe Mutuel, indicates that it is recommended that adults include 300 micrograms of folic acid in their diet every day. This corresponds to 300 micrograms of dietary folate, or 150 micrograms of synthetic folic acid. It is important to note that alcohol, tobacco and certain medicines increase the need for folic acid.

For pregnant women, the recommended daily dose is 400 micrograms of synthetic folic acid up to the twelfth week of pregnancy, combined with a healthy and varied diet. Ideally, women planning to have a baby should take folic acid supplements 3 months before conceiving. In fact, taking folic acid as a preventive measure ensures a sufficient supply of this vitamin from the very first weeks of pregnancy, bearing in mind that a predisposition to Spina bifida already occurs between the 18th and 26th day of pregnancy.

Generally speaking, achieving the recommended daily dose of folic acid through dietary folates alone is complex. This would mean consuming products rich in folic acid in large quantities. To make up for this, here are a few possible alternatives:

  • consume synthetic folic acid in galenic form, such as tablets or capsules;
  • eat food enriched with folic acid. These foods can be recognised throughout Switzerland by the F label on the packaging;
  • don't forget to eat a healthy and varied diet, with a preference for products rich in dietary folates.

As we have seen, folic acid plays a vital role in healthy cell function. It's hardly surprising that it's been called the "vitamin of life". Its benefits for the whole population are well known, so why do without?

Emma Raposo

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Emma Raposo

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