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

Does Protein Supplement Timing Matter?

Posted May 15, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

How Do You Gain Muscle Mass & Lose Fat Mass?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

protein supplement timingMost of what you read about protein supplements on the internet is wrong. That is because most published studies on protein supplements:

  • Are very small
  • Are not double blinded.
    • Both the subjects and the investigators knew who got the protein supplement.
  • Are done by individual companies with their product.
    • You have no idea which ingredients are in their product are responsible for the effects they report.
    • You have no idea how their product compares with other protein products.
    • There is no standardization with respect to the amount or type of protein or the addition of non-protein ingredients.

Because of these limitations there is a lot of misleading information on the benefits of protein supplements timing and maximal benefit. Let’s start by looking at why people use protein supplements. Let’s also look at what is generally accepted as true with respect to the best supplement timing.

There are 4 major reasons people consume protein supplements:

  • Enhance the muscle gain associated with resistance training: In this case, protein supplements are customarily consumed concurrently with the workout.
  • Preserve muscle and accelerate fat loss while on a weight loss diet: In this case, protein supplements are customarily consumed with meals or as meal replacements.
  • Provide a healthier protein source. In this case, protein supplements are customarily consumed with meals in place of meat protein.
  • Prevent muscle loss associated with aging or illness. There is no customary pattern associated with this use of protein supplements.

How good are the data supporting the customary timing of protein supplementation? The answer is: Not very good. The timing is based on a collection of weak studies which do not always agree with each other.

The current study  (J.L. Hudson et al, Nutrition Reviews, 76: 461-468, 2018 ) was designed to fill this void in our knowledge. It is a meta-analysis that compares all reasonably good studies that have looked at the effect of protein supplement timing on weight gain or loss, lean muscle mass gain, fat loss, and the ratio of lean muscle mass to fat mass.

How Was The Study Done?

The authors started by doing a literature search of all studies that met the following criteria:

  • The study was a randomized control trial with parallel design. This means that study contained a control group. It does not mean that the investigators or subjects were blinded with respect to which subjects used a protein supplement and which did not.
  • The subjects were engaged in resistance training.
  • The study lasted 6 weeks or longer.
  • Reliable methods were used to measure body composition (lean muscle mass and fat mass).
  • The subjects were healthy and at least 19 years old.
  • There was no restriction on the food the subjects consumed.

The authors started with 2074 published studies and ended up with 34 that met all their criteria. They then separated the studies into two groups – those in which the protein supplements were used with meals and those in which the protein supplements were used between meals.

Both groups were diverse.

  • Group 1 included subjects who consumed their protein supplement with their meal and those who consumed their protein supplement as a meal replacement.
  • Group 2 included subjects who consumed their protein supplement concurrent with exercise (usually immediately after exercise) and those who consumed their protein supplement at a fixed time of day not associated with exercise.

Does Protein Supplement Timing Matter?

 

protein supplement timing workoutsBecause the individual studies were very diverse in the way they were designed, the authors could not calculate a reliable estimate of how much lean muscle mass was increased or fat mass was decreased. Instead, they calculated the percentage of studies showing an increase in lean muscle mass or a decrease in fat mass.

When the authors compared protein supplements consumed with meals versus protein supplements consumed between meals:

  • Weight gain was observed in 56% of the studies of protein supplementation with meals compared to 72% of the studies of protein supplementation between meals. In other words, protein supplements consumed with meals were less likely to lead to weight gain than protein supplements consumed between meals.
  • An increase in lean muscle mass was observed in 94% of the studies of protein supplementation with meals compared to 90% of the studies of protein supplementation between meals. In other words, timing of protein supplementation did not matter with respect to increase in muscle mass.
  • A loss of fat mass was observed in 87% of the studies of protein supplementation with meals compared to 59% of the studies of protein supplementation between meals. In other words, protein supplements consumed with meals were more likely to lead to loss of fat mass.
  • An increase in the ratio of lean muscle mass to fat mass was observed in 100% of the studies of protein supplementation with meals compared to 87% of the studies of protein supplementation between meals. In short, protein supplements consumed with meals were slightly more likely to lead to an increase in the ratio of lean muscle mass to fat mass.

The following seem to suggest protein supplement timing matters:

The authors pointed out that their findings were consistent with previous studies showing that when protein supplements are consumed with a meal they displace some of the calories that otherwise would have been consumed. Simply put, people naturally compensate by eating less of other foods.

In contrast, the authors stated that previous studies have shown that when foods, especially liquid foods, are consumed as snacks (between meals), people are less likely to compensate by reducing the calories consumed in the next meal.

The others concluded: “Concurrently with resistance training, consuming protein supplements with meals, rather than between meals, may more effectively promote weight control and reduce fat mass without influencing improvements in lean [muscle] mass.”

What Are The Limitations Of The Study?

Meta-analyses such as this one, are only as good as the studies included in the meta-analysis. Unfortunately, most sports nutrition studies are very weak studies. Thus, this meta-analysis is a perfect example of the “Garbage In: Garbage Out (GI:GO)” phenomenon.

For example, let’s start by looking at what the term “protein supplement” meant.

  • Because the studies were done by individual companies with their product, the protein supplements in this meta-analysis:
    • Included whey, casein, soy, bovine colostrum, rice or combinations of protein sources.
    • Were isolates, concentrates, or hydrolysates.
    • Contained various additions like creatine, amino acids, and carbohydrate.
  • As I discuss in my book, Slaying the Food Myths, previous studies have shown that optimal protein and leucine levels are needed to maximize the increase in muscle mass and decrease in fat mass associated with resistance exercise. However, neither protein nor leucine levels were standardized in the protein supplements included in this meta-analysis.
  • Previous studies have shown that protein supplements that have little effect on blood sugar levels (have a low glycemic index) are more likely to curb appetite. However, glycemic index was not standardized for the protein supplements included in this meta-analysis.

protein supplement timing workout peopleIn short, the conclusions of this study might be true for some protein supplements, but not for others. We have no way of knowing.

We also need to consider the composition of the two groups.

  • Protein supplements used as meal replacements are more likely to decrease weight and fat mass than protein supplements consumed with meals. Yet, both were included in group 1.
  • Some studies suggest that protein supplements consumed concurrent with resistance exercise are more likely to increase muscle mass than protein supplements consumed another time of day. Yet, both are included in group 2. We also have no idea whether the meals with protein supplements in group 1 were consumed shortly after exercise or at an entirely different time of day.

This was the most glaring weakness of the study because it was completely avoidable. The authors could have grouped the studies into categories that made more sense.

In other words, there are multiple weaknesses that limit the predictive power of this study.

What Can We Learn From This Study?

Despite its many limitations, this study does remind us that protein supplements do have calories. This is of relatively little importance for people whose primary goal is to increase lean muscle mass.

However, most of us are using protein supplements to lose weight or to increase our lean mass to fat mass ratio. Simply put, we are either trying to lean out (shape up) or lose weight. And, we want to lose that weight primarily by getting rid of excess fat. For us, calories do matter. With that in mind:

  • If we are consuming a protein supplement immediately after exercise or between meals we probably should make a conscious effort to reduce our daily caloric intake elsewhere in our diet.
  • Alternatively, we could consume the protein supplement with a meal, but time the meal so it occurs shortly after exercise.

 

The Bottom Line:

 

A recent study looked at the optimal timing of protein supplements consumed by subjects who were engaged in resistance exercise. Specifically, the study compared protein supplements consumed with meals versus protein supplements consumed between meals on weight, lean muscle mass, fat mass, and the ratio of lean muscle mass to fat mass. The study reported:

  • Protein supplements consumed with meals were less likely to lead to weight gain than protein supplements consumed between meals.
  • Timing of protein supplementation did not matter with respect to increase in muscle mass.
  • Protein supplements consumed with meals were more likely to lead to loss of fat mass.
  • Protein supplements consumed with meals were slightly more likely to lead to an increase in the ratio of lean mass to fat mass.

The authors pointed out that their findings were consistent with previous studies showing that when a protein supplement was consumed with a meal it displaces some of the calories that would have been otherwise consumed. Simply put, people naturally compensate by eating less of other foods.

In contrast, the authors said that previous studies have shown that when foods, especially liquid foods, are consumed as snacks (between meals), people are less likely to compensate by reducing the calories consumed in the next meal.

As discussed in the article above, the study has major weaknesses. However, despite its many weaknesses, this study does remind us that protein supplements do have calories. This is of relatively little importance for people whose primary goal is to increase lean muscle mass.

However, for those of us who are using protein supplements to lose weight or to increase our lean mass to fat mass ratio, calories do matter.  With that in mind:

  • If we are consuming a protein supplement immediately after exercise or between meals we probably should make a conscious effort to reduce our daily caloric intake elsewhere in our diet.
  • Alternatively, we could consume the protein supplement with a meal, but time the meal so it occurs shortly after exercise.

For more details, 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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