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.

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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

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Latest Article

Is Our Microbiome Affected By Exercise?

Posted November 6, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Microbiome Mysteries

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

is our microbiome affected by exerciseIn a recent post,  What is Your Microbiome and Why is it Important,  of “Health Tips From The Professor” I outlined how our microbiome, especially the bacteria that reside in our intestine, influences our health. That influence can be either good or bad depending on which species of bacteria populate our gut. I also discussed how the species of bacteria that populate our gut are influenced by what we eat and, in turn, influence how the foods we eat are metabolized.

I shared that there is an association between obesity and the species of bacteria that inhabit our gut. At present, this is a “chicken and egg” conundrum. We don’t know whether obesity influences the species of bacteria that inhabit our gut, or whether certain species of gut bacteria cause us to become obese.

Previous studies have shown that there is also an association between exercise and the species of bacteria that inhabit our gut. In particular, exercise is associated with an increase in bacteria that metabolize fiber in our diets to short chain fatty acids such as butyrate. That is potentially important because butyrate is a primary food source for intestinal mucosal cells (the cells that line the intestine). Butyrate helps those cells maintain the integrity of the gut barrier (which helps prevent things like leaky gut syndrome). It also has an anti-inflammatory effect on the immune cells that reside in the gut.

However, associations don’t prove cause and effect. We don’t know whether the differences in gut bacteria were caused by differences in diet or leanness in populations who exercised regularly and those who did not. This is what the present study (JM Allen et al, Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise, 50: 747-757, 2018 ) was designed to clarify.  Is our microbiome affected by exercise?

 

How Was The Study Designed?

is our microbiome affected by exercise studyThis study was performed at the University of Illinois. Thirty-two previously sedentary subjects (average age = 28) were recruited for the study. Twenty of them were women and 12 were men. Prior to starting the study, the participants filled out a 7-day dietary record. They were asked to follow the same diet throughout the 12-week study. In addition, a dietitian designed a 3-day food menu based on their 7-day recall for the participants to follow prior to each fecal collection to determine species of gut bacteria.

The study included a two-week baseline when their baseline gut bacteria population was measured, and participants were tested for fitness. This was followed by a 6-week exercise intervention consisting of three supervised 30 to 60-minute moderate to vigorous exercise sessions per week. The exercise was adapted to the participant’s initial fitness level, and both the intensity and duration of exercise increased over the 6-week exercise intervention. Following the exercise intervention, all participants were instructed to maintain their diet and refrain from exercise for another 6 weeks. This was referred to as the “washout period.”

VO2max (a measure of fitness) was determined at baseline and at the end of the exercise intervention. Stool samples for determination of gut bacteria and concentrations of short-chain fatty acids were taken at baseline, at the end of the exercise intervention, and again after the washout period.

In short, this study divided participants into lean and obese categories and held diet constant. The only variable was the exercise component.

 

Is Our Microbiome Affected By Exercise?

is our microbiome affected by exercise fitnessThe results of the study were as follows:

  • Fitness, as assessed by VO2max, increased for all the participants, and the increase in fitness was comparable for both lean and obese subjects.
  • Exercise induced a change in the population of gut bacteria, and the change was comparable in lean and obese subjects.
  • Exercise increased fecal concentrations of butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids in the lean subjects, but not in obese subjects.
  • The exercise-induced changes in gut bacteria and short-chain fatty acid production were largely reversed once exercise training ceased.

The authors concluded: “These findings suggest that exercise training induces compositional and functional changes in the human gut microbiota that are dependent on obesity status, independent of diet, and contingent on the sustainment of exercise.” [Note: To be clear, the exercise-induced changes in both gut bacteria and short-chain fatty acid production were independent of diet and contingent on the sustainment of exercise. However, only the production of short-chain fatty acids was dependent on obesity status.]

 

What Does This Study Mean For You?

is our microbiome affected by exercise gut bacteriaThere are two important take home lessons from this study.

  • With respect to our gut bacteria, I have consistently told you that microbiome research is an emerging science. This is a small study, so you should regard it as the beginning of our understanding of the effect of exercise on our microbiome rather than conclusive by itself. It is consistent with previous studies showing an association between exercise and a potentially beneficial shift in the population of gut bacteria.

The strength of the study is that it shows that exercise-induced changes in beneficial gut bacteria are probably independent of diet. However, it is the first study to look at the interaction between obesity, exercise and gut bacteria, so I would interpret those results with caution until they have been replicated in subsequent studies.

  • With respect to exercise, this may be yet another reason to add regular physical activity to your healthy lifestyle program. We already know that exercise is important for cardiovascular health. We also know that exercise increases lean muscle mass which increases metabolic rate and helps prevent obesity. There is also excellent evidence that exercise improves mood and helps prevent cognitive decline as we age.

Exercise is also associated with decreased risk of colon cancer and irritable bowel disease. This effect of exercise has not received much attention because the mechanism of this effect is unclear. This study shows that exercise increases the fecal concentrations of butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids. Perhaps, this provides the mechanism for the interaction between exercise and intestinal health.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study has reported that:

  • Exercise induces a change in the population of gut bacteria, and the change was comparable in lean and obese subjects.
  • Exercise causes an increase in the number of gut bacteria that produce butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids that are beneficial for gut health.
  • These effects are independent of diet, but do not appear to be independent of obesity because they were seen in lean subjects but not in obese subjects.
  • The exercise-induced changes in gut bacteria and short-chain fatty acid production are largely reversed once exercise training ceases.

The authors concluded: “These findings suggest that exercise training induces compositional and functional changes in the human gut microbiota that are dependent on obesity status, independent on diet, and contingent on the sustainment of exercise.”

For more details and my interpretation of the data, 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.

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