What Does Folic Acid Do for the Body?

Reviewed on 2/9/2021

What is Folic Acid?

Folic acid is a synthetic form of folate that is a type of B vitamin (vitamin B9). 

Food fortification is a way to add vitamins and minerals to foods, and folic acid is added to foods because it is more heat-stable than types of natural food folate, which can easily be broken down by heat and light. 

What Does Folic Acid Do for the Body?

Folic acid is used by the body to make new cells. It is particularly important during pregnancy for the development the neural tube in a fetus. A neural tube that does not develop properly can result in a birth defects such as defects of the baby’s brain (anencephaly) and spina bifida that can cause physical and cognitive disabilities.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends all women of reproductive age take 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid each day, in addition to consuming food with folate from their diet, to help prevent major birth defects of the baby’s brain and spine. Daily doses higher than 400 mcg are not necessarily better, unless a doctor recommends taking more due to other health conditions.

What Are Good Sources of Folic Acid?

Vitamin supplements with folic acid can provide the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of 400 mcg. 

Good sources of naturally occurring folate include: 

  • Beef liver
  • Vegetables 
  • Asparagus
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach and mustard greens
  • Fruits and fruit juices, especially oranges and orange juice
  • Nuts, beans, and peas, such as peanuts, black-eyed peas, and kidney beans

In addition to eating foods with folate, folic acid can be found in fortified foods such as: 

  • Enriched bread, flour, cornmeal, pasta, and rice
  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Fortified corn masa flour (used to make corn tortillas and tamales)

What Are Side Effects of Folic Acid?

Excess folic acid dissolves in water, which means any folic acid not used by the body is excreted out of the body in urine.

Side effects of folic acid are uncommon and may include allergic reactions such as:

  • Redness
  • Skin rash
  • Itching
  • Feeling unwell (malaise)
  • Respiratory difficulty due to bronchospasm

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Reviewed on 2/9/2021
References
https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/folicacid/index.html

https://ods.od.nih.gov/pdf/factsheets/Folate-Consumer.pdf