Folic acid is an important nutrient

Folic acid is needed for healthy growth and development, especially for women who may become pregnant.

February 12, 2018 - Author: Lynn Krahn, Michigan State University Extension

Folic acid is one of the B-complex vitamins that are essential for the development and growth of new cells during growth and replacement of cells as we age. Children, teens, and young adults need enough folic acid to allow normal cell growth, help them make new red blood cells, and also to avoid feeling tired and run down. Most children and teens should try to get 200 – 300 mcg of folic acid each day, and adults should get 400 mcg of folic acid. 

Multi-vitamins, folic acid supplements and fortified cereals and bread are generally the best way to ensure you get enough folic acid. Folic acid occurs in many foods and some foods such as bread and cereals are enriched but getting enough can be a challenge depending on food choices. 

One way to ensure you and your family are getting enough folic acid is to look for folic acid on Nutrition Facts labels and find several foods that are good sources that your family likes to eat. Foods that are canned or processed can vary in amounts of folic acid, depending on brands, and the way they are processed, so comparing nutrition facts labels can be helpful. Naturally occurring folic acid in foods is called folate and may be listed as either folate or folic acid on a nutrition label. 

Getting enough is very important for women who may become pregnant because this nutrient is essential to the developing neural tube of an unborn child, and to avoid serious birth defects involving the brain and spinal cord. According to the March of Dimes, getting enough folic acid before and during pregnancy may also help prevent heart defects, cleft lip and cleft palate. Waiting until pregnancy to start focusing on getting enough folic acid is likely too late because according to the March of Dimes, a neural tube defect of a fetus has already happened in the first month of pregnancy.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • The two most common neural tube defects are spina bifida (defect of the spine) and anencephaly (defect of the brain). They happen very early in pregnancy when the neural tube, which becomes the brain and the spine, does not close properly.
  • Spina bifida can cause lifelong disabilities that range from mild to severe.
  • Almost all babies born with anencephaly will die shortly after birth.

Below are some examples of good sources of naturally occurring folate:

  • Wheat germ, 2 tbsp. (80 – 100 mcg)
  • Strawberries, ½ cup (26 mcg)
  • Orange juice, 8 oz. (109 mcg)
  • Spinach, boiled ½ cup (131 mcg)
  • Spinach, chopped raw ½ cup (54 mcg)
  • Asparagus, 6 spears (131 mcg)
  • Soybean nuts (176 – 181 mcg)
  • Blackeye peas, canned 1 cup (123 mcg)
  • Great Northern beans, 1 cup (181 – 213 mcg)

Some other types of dry beans including chickpeas are also good sources of folic acid, although not every type of bean is a good source.

Everyone needs to get enough folic acid in their diets for healthy red blood cells, the development and repair of all cells, and to avoid a type of anemia, not just women who can become pregnant. According to experts, folic acid is best consumed as a vitamin supplement and by eating grain foods that are enriched with folic acid in addition to foods that contain naturally occurring folate. Practice reading Nutrition Facts labels to ensure you are getting enough folate from foods or added folic acid. Michigan State University Extension can help you improve your diet in a variety of ways, including helping you become proficient at reading and using Nutrition Facts labels.  

Tags: food & health, msu extension, nutrition

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