The words “folate” and “folic acid” are often used interchangeably, but there are important differences between them.
Folate is the naturally-occurring form of the vitamin found in green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, yeast, liver and legumes. Folic Acid, on the other hand, is the man-made form of folate that is added to food or used as an ingredient in vitamin supplements. Folate is important in cell growth and development and helps form red blood cells.
While recent studies suggest that this vitamin may play an important role in preventing cardiovascular disease, folate is also important for rheumatoid arthritis patients who are taking methotrexate. Methotrexate treats the pain and swelling associated with RA but also impairs your body’s ability to absorb folate. In order to make sure you are getting a healthy dose of this nutrient, choose folic acid supplements and foods fortified with the vitamin. While it is generally best to get your vitamins and minerals naturally from foods, ironically, folic acid from supplements and fortified foods is better absorbed by the body than the natural form. Consequently, you have to eat about 800 mcg of natural folate to get the amount of folic acid (400 mcg) typically found in a multivitamin.
Many foods are now fortified with folic acid, including enriched breads, cereals, flours, pastas, rice, and other grain products. In fact, a single serving of many breakfast cereals has the recommended amount of folic acid to meet your daily needs. Most people in the United States get enough folic acid in their diet because it is plentiful in the food supply. All adults should take a supplement or eat fortified foods to get 400 mcg/day of folic acid, in addition to a varied diet.
Laura Gibofsky, MS, RD, CSP, CDN, is a nutritionist at Hospital for Special Surgery.