This World Health Day, Vegan Society Dietitian Heather Russell collaborates with charity Shine to explain what vegans need to know about this B vitamin.
What’s the difference between folate and folic acid?
Folate and folic acid are both forms of vitamin B9. Folate is the type that occurs naturally in foods and in the body, whereas folic acid is the version found in fortified foods and supplements.
Vegan diets & folate
Data from the EPIC-Oxford study, which compares different dietary groups, showed that vegan participants had the highest levels of folate in their blood. However, being vegan is no guarantee that you’re getting enough folate! Make sure that your diet is rich in this nutrient by including good sources daily, such as leafy greens, beans, peas and lentils. Oranges, beetroot, quinoa, mango, asparagus, avocado, okra, parsnips, chia seeds and ground linseed (flaxseed) also contain useful amounts of folate.
The B12 connection
The Vegan Society’s recommendations about vitamin B12 are designed to keep down the level of homocysteine in the bloodstream as well as ensuring that vitamin B12 deficiency symptoms are avoided. Elevated homocysteine has been linked to higher risks of heart and blood vessel disease and pregnancy complications. Research suggests that elevated homocysteine is a significant issue within the vegan community.
Homocysteine levels are affected by other nutrients, most notably folate/folic acid. Our VEG 1 supplement contains extra B vitamins, including folic acid, which ensure that the vitamin B12 can do its job.
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Who needs to supplement?
It’s a good idea for women of childbearing age to use a folic acid supplement of 400 micrograms as nearly half of all pregnancies are unplanned and folic acid greatly reduces the risk of a baby developing birth defects like spina bifida. The oral contraceptive pill depletes folate levels in the body, increasing the need to take a precautionary folic acid supplement. Without supplementation, expectant mothers are also at risk of anaemia due to the increased folate needs of the developing baby. For maximum protection, folic acid should be taken eight weeks prior to conception and during the first trimester. According to Shine, only 31% of women take the right dose at the right time, with many more not starting until they’re already pregnant, when it’s too late.
It is safe to take 400 micrograms of folic acid in addition to the 200 micrograms found in VEG 1.
Optimising folic acid status doesn’t just reduce the risk of neural tube defects. Dr. Jenny Smith-Wymant, Health Engagement Officer at Shine, explains: “There's good evidence for the role of folate/folic acid in supporting brain and nerve function, mental health, the cardiovascular system and the immune system, and because it helps make DNA, all cells can benefit.”
Is there such a thing as too much folate/folic acid?
There’s no upper limit for our intakes of folate found in foods like leafy greens, beans, peas and lentils. For adults, there is a daily upper limit of 1000 micrograms for the amount of folic acid obtained from fortified foods and supplementation. This also applies during pregnancy unless you’re receiving medical advice about high dose supplementation. High dose supplementation may be needed for those with a family history of birth defects or who have a high body mass index, have diabetes or take anti-epilepsy medication.
The fight for fortification
It’s good to be aware that the government is considering mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid, which has the potential to improve the folic acid status and health of our nation, including a reduction in the number of pregnancies affected by neural tube defects. This nutritional strategy is supported by Shine and our partner the British Dietetic Association.
The views expressed by our bloggers are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.