Folic Acid vs. Folate

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in current health articles, folic acid vs. folate, Health Current Events

Are Supplement Manufacturers Trying to Mislead You?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

folic acid vs. folate questionThere has been much confusion on folic acid vs. folate.  For example, I recently received this question from a reader:

“I have gotten so much clarification about folic acid from your video – thank you!
But I have another question I was hoping you could answer.

When a supplement label states there is “folate” rather than “folic acid”, is there really a difference between the two? I hear women telling each other to only use the one that says folate because it’s made from food. And folic acid isn’t. These women are also paying more money for these products because of this. Is this true? (And I’m not talking about tetrahydrafolate, either)
I’ve been told by one manufacturer that they label it as folic acid, but they know other companies who use the exact same source of folic acid.  Still,  they put folate on their label, possibly to avoid controversy.
Are these women being duped? Should they be asking the manufacturer certain questions for clarification?”

The video, this reader is referring to is my “The Truth About Methyl Folate” video in which I debunk the many myths about methyl folate circulating on the internet, and, unfortunately, repeated by some doctors.

However, the reader is correct. I did not address the folic acid vs. folate nomenclature in that video. I will attempt to clarify it in this article.

Folic Acid vs. Folate

A Rose By Any Other Name

roseI call this section “A Rose By Any Other Name” from the famous Shakespeare quote from Romeo and Juliet “A rose by any other names would smell as sweet”.

Biochemists and nutritionists use the terms folic acid and folate interchangeably. There is a sound chemical rationale for that.

Folic acid has a glutamic acid residue on one end. Thus, folic acid is what chemists refer to as an organic acid, specifically a carboxylic acid. Under acidic conditions the appropriate suffix for an organic acid is “ic”. However, under neutral or alkaline conditions, organic acids lose their protons. Once that happens, the appropriate suffix is “ate”.

The exact pH of vitamin pills may vary from brand to brand. In our body our stomach is acidic, our intestines are alkaline, and our blood and cells are normally near neutral. Thus, vitamin B9 could correctly be labeled either folic acid or folate in supplements. It will be folic acid in our stomach and will be folate in our intestines, bloodstream, and cells.  Beginning to see the difference between folic acid vs. folate?

The bottom line is that nobody is trying to trick you by using the term folate for the vitamin B9 on their supplement label. Furthermore, whether the label says folic acid or folate, the actual vitamin B9 will be in both the folic acid and folate form as it travels through your body.

In answer to your other question, since folic acid and folate are two names for the same molecule, folate is not more natural than folic acid. If someone is charging you extra because they use the term folate on their label, they are ripping you off.

 

What About Tetrahydrofolate?

uderstanding folic acid vs. folateThe person who sent me the question also asked about tetrahydrofolates.  Here the story gets a bit murkier.  As folic acid or folate enters our cells, three things immediately happen:

  • It is reduced to tetrahydrofolate. That terminology simply means that 4 hydrogens have been added to the molecule.
  • A string of glutamic acid residues is added. That traps it inside the cells.
  • It is converted to a half dozen different derivatives that play important metabolic roles in the cell. N5-methyltetrahydrofolate (commonly referred to as methyl folate) is one of these metabolically active compounds.

This is where it gets confusing. Nutritionists also refer to all of these tetrahydrofolate derivatives as folates. My guess is that years ago some genius must have decided that the term tetrahydrofolate was too long and complicated for the general public.

In my view lumping everything together under the term folate has turned out to be more confusing in the long run. However, I do have the advantage of hindsight.  It’s easy to point out mistakes after they are made.

However, this is where all of the confusion arises.  It’s because the term folate can mean so many different things.  Here are a few fast facts to help clarify the confusion.

  • Folates in food are in the tetrahydrofolate form. Tetrahydrofolate in foods is, in fact, more natural than folic acid or folate in supplements. However, tetrahydrofolates in foods are utilized only about half as well as folic acid or folate in supplements. In addition, most of us don’t eat enough high-folate foods.
  • In contrast, tetrahydrofolate in a supplement is not more natural than folic acid. That’s because:
  • It would require one cup of lentils or two cups of spinach to provide the RDA level of tetrahydrofolate in a single vitamin tablet. That’s just one tablet.  You do the math!  If someone tells you that the folate in their supplement came from foods, they will lie to you about other things as well.
  • In fact, the tetrahydrofolate found in supplements is chemically synthesized from folic acid. It can never be more natural than folic acid.
  • Supplements containing tetrahydrofolate are no better utilized than supplements containing folic acid when you measure their ability to increase cellular tetrahydrofolate levels (the only measure that really matters).

The bottom line is that even if folate on the label were to refer to tetrahydrofolate, it is not from food.  It is not more natural than folic acid.  It is not better utilized than folic acid.  If someone is charging you a higher price for that supplement, they are ripping you off.

 

Debunking The Methyl Folate Myths

mythsMethyl folate has become an internet sensation.  If you believe all the hype, everyone should be using supplements containing methyl folate rather than folic acid.  In fact, some of the claims made by manufacturers who sell methyl folate supplements are downright deceptive.

Unfortunately, there are even medical doctors touting the wonders of methyl folate and offering all sorts of plausible sounding biochemical explanations about why it is superior to folic acid.  My take on that is that I try not to practice medicine when I write my articles.  I have neither the training nor the degree to do that.  In turn, I would ask medical doctors to stop trying to practice biochemistry.

As I said at the beginning of this article, I have produced a video, “The Truth About Methyl Folate,” in which I debunk all the many methyl folate myths circulating on the internet. If you would like the “Cliff Notes” version, here it is:

  • Supplements containing methyl folate do not get their methyl folate from foods.
  • Methyl folate in supplements is chemically synthesized and is not more natural than folic acid.
  • Folic acid and methyl folate in supplements are equally well utilized by the body, even in individuals with a MTHFR deficiency.
  • Excess folic acid does not cause cancer.

If you would like the science and the references behind those statements, I invite you to view my video.
metho folate
I hope you now understand folic acid vs. folates.  If not, please feel free to reach out to me.

 

The Bottom Line

  • A reader recently asked me to clear up the confusion about why the terms folic acid vs. folate are used interchangeably on supplement labels to describe vitamin B9.
  • That terminology is based on simple chemistry.  Folic acid and folate are two names for the same molecule. Under acidic conditions, it is called folic acid. Under neutral or alkaline conditions, it is called folate.
  • Since folic acid and folate are two names for the same molecule, folate is not more natural than folic acid.  If someone is charging you extra because they use the term folate on their label, they are ripping you off.
  • In the cell folate is reduced to tetrahydrofolate and a number of metabolically active derivatives of tetrahydrofolate are formed. Unfortunately, these compounds are also referred to as folates. This terminology has a historical basis rather than a chemical basis and is confusing.
  • If you see the term tetrahydrofolate on your supplement label,  you need to know that it is not from food.  It is not more natural than folic acid.  It is not better utilized than folic acid.  If someone is charging you a higher price for that supplement, they are also ripping you off.
  • I have produced a video called “The Truth About Methyl Folate” to debunk the many methyl folate myths on the internet. In the article above, you will find the “Cliff Notes” version of the video.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Trackback from your site.

Comments (2)

  • Peggy Turcott

    |

    Dear Mr Chaney,
    I am new 2 ur Health Tips emails. They r very educational. Thank you 4 the benefit of ur time consuming reports. I do have a suggestion, if u dont mind. It would take less sheets of paper & look more professional if u created them in Word using full width of sheets. Then send as attachments so when we open & print it won’t have email appearance if senders name, date, receivers email address & subject line. When printing sometimes there is a 3.5″ white space boarder on R side & a 1″ white space boarder on L side there pushing the words to the middle page using more sheets of paper because the words don’t spread out 2 both the sides leaving only a 1/2 boarder. Thank u 4 reading & possibly considering my suggestion 4 a more professional look but also 2 save us pages. I print & have handy 2 show 2 clients.

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Peggy,
      If you click on the link included with each email, it will take you directly to that article on my website. You can share the link with anyone and print out the article full size if you would like to.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

Leave a comment

Recent Videos From Dr. Steve Chaney

READ THE ARTICLE
READ THE ARTICLE

Latest Article

Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

UA-43257393-1