New Blog Series: Nutrient Spotlight on Folate (Folic Acid)

This is the start of a new series on the HGN Blog: Nutrient Spotlight.

From major vitamins and minerals, to types of fiber and tiny phytochemicals, each Nutrient Spotlight will explore the what, why, where, and how of a different important dietary player. I also plan to share a few recipes rich in that particular ingredient, to send you off with some culinary inspiration.

For National Birth Defects Prevention Month (January) and Folic Acid Awareness Week (8-14 January 2017), the first Nutrient Spotlight is on FOLATE.

Folate and folic acid are often used interchangeably. True in a sense, folic acid is actually the man-made form of folate that is found in supplements and fortified foods. While folic acid is absorbed quicker than natural folate, this synthetic form must first be converted into folate by the body before it can begin to work.

What is it? // Why do I need it?

One of our B vitamins, folate (B9) facilitates production of red blood cells that deliver oxygen throughout the body (and to a developing fetus from mom), helps the body metabolize proteins, and plays a role in the synthesis of several brain chemicals, including the mood-boosting and sleep-regulating hormone serotonin. Folate works together with other B vitamins to regulate levels of homocysteine, ultimately reducing risk of heart disease and stroke, and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. Research has also shown that folate helps make, repair and prevent changes to DNA, which can offer protection from certain cancers. Furthermore, folate may prevent or slow the decline of brain function, hearing, vision, memory and bone mass that often occur with age.

Studies have also shown that low levels of folate in women is linked to infertility, poor quality of her eggs and placenta, preterm delivery, low infant birthweight, infant cleft palate, and miscarriage. Perhaps the best known role of folate is in the prevention of birth defects of the brain and spine of a developing fetus. These neural tube defects, including anencephaly and spina bifida, develop in the first few weeks of pregnancy, and are among the most common major congenital anomalies in the US. For all of these reasons, it’s important that women of child-bearing age maintain adequate levels of folate at least 3 months prior to conception, as well as in the first month of pregnancy.

Did you know that folate also plays important roles in men’s fertility health? Adequate intake of folate is required for production of healthy, viable sperm, and ensures that these little swimmers are up to the challenge when the occasion for conception presents itself!

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Where can I find it?

Folate is one of our water-soluble vitamins (dissolves in water), meaning that any amount above what our body readily uses is eliminated and not stored. This makes daily intake of dietary folate a necessity.

Many foods contain folate, most notably dark green veg. Artichoke, asparagus, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts, kale, collards, turnip and mustard greens, even romaine lettuce. Raw spinach contains about 60 micrograms (mcg/μg) per cup, roughly 15% of your daily needs; while the same amount cooked provides about 260 mcg, or 66%. Folate is also found naturally in asparagus, avocado, cauliflower and cabbages, citrus fruits, edamame, leeks, and papaya.

Other good sources include sunflower seeds, sesame seeds and tahini, peanuts and soynuts; dried beans, lentils and peas; as well as wheat germ and whole grains, like oats, barley and bulgur. Of animal origin, folate is found in high amounts in liver, and in smaller amounts in eggs, some types of fish and shellfish, beef and chicken.

The synthetic form, folic acid, is added to many common foods during processing, including a variety of enriched breads, ready-to-eat cereals, flours, cornmeal, pastas, rice and other whole grain products, and more recently in some 100% fruit juices. In 2016, the FDA approved voluntary fortification of corn masa flour specifically to target Hispanic women who are inherently at higher risk of neural tube defects than non-Hispanic women.

FOLATE-RICH HGN RECIPES
+ Smoky Braised Collard Greens (GF + V)
Creamy Carrot Lentil Soup with Crunchy Almond-Coconut Dukkah (GF + V)
+ Chana dal with Spinach, Cucumber and Pomegranate Arils (GF + V)
+ Sunny Yellow Chopped Salad with Chickpeas (GF + V)
+ Besan/Chickpea Flour Crackers OR the Fresh Herb variety OR Socca (besan flour) Flatbread (GF + V)
Corn Tortillas 
+ Shortcut Ravioli with Peas, Spinach, Mint and Ricotta + Brown Butter Spinach Pan Sauce (V)
+ Grilled Beef Tri-Tip, Corn and Pickled Cherry (Romaine) Salad (GF)
+ Beer-Steamed Mussels with Cabbage, Leeks and Smoky Bacon
+ Smoked Salmon Kedgeree with Spinach, Green Peas, Leek and Basmati Rice (GF)
+ Spiked Chorizo and Black Bean Chilli with Chipotle, Roasted Garlic and Plantain (GF)
Red Revitalizer Smoothie (GF + V)

How much do I need?

The guidelines below reflect the needs of adults* (14+), including the increased needs during conception, pregnancy, and breastfeeding.

Adult Men: 400 mcg per day

Adult Women: 400 mcg per day

Adult Women planning for/currently pregnant: 600 – 800 mcg per day

Adult Women lactating/breastfeeding: 500 mcg per day

Although some studies suggest that upwards of 70% of all neural tube defects could be prevented with adequate maternal folate intake, most women in the US do not get enough through diet. Therefore, experts recommended all women of childbearing age take a daily multivitamin or supplement** containing 400 mcg folic acid, in addition to foods rich in folate like those listed in the previous section, to meet their elevated requirements and help reduce the risk for these serious birth defects of the brain and spine.

The upper limit (UL) for adults is currently set at 1,000 mcg per day of folic acid from fortified foods or in supplement form; not including folate from food.

*Information on recommended daily intake for infants, children and teens here.

**Discuss supplementation with your physician if you are taking Metformin, due to potential drug-nutrient interactions.

Cheers, Heather

Tell me… What do you think about this new series? Suggestions to make it better? I’d love your input!

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Eat Well From the Author Nutrient Spotlight

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