The Facts on Folic Acid

Folic acid seems to be a buzzword in vitamins these days. What is it that has people so interested and motivated to get the word out? Two really good answers are neural-tube birth defects and heart disease.

What is folic acid?

Folic acid is an essential B vitamin — because it cannot be produced by the body and must be consumed daily through diet. Women should get 400 micrograms (.4 milligrams) of folic acid every day from their diet. If this is not feasible, it is suggested that a multivitamin be taken as well.

What can folic acid do?

Folic acid can help protect an unborn baby from developing spina bifida (abnormal development of the spinal cord) and anencephaly (absence of most of the brain). Infants born with anencephaly die shortly after birth. Babies with spina bifida, depending on the severity, are born with partial or total paralysis. Folic acid protects the neural tube to let it close properly, leading to normal brain and spinal cord development.

The neural tube closes between the 25th and 30th day after conception, which means that the window of opportunity is pretty small. Most women don’t know they are pregnant until after the neural tube has attempted to close. So if you start getting enough folic acid only after you find out you’re pregnant, it is too late. This explains the recommendation that all women of child-bearing age get 400 micrograms of folic acid each day.

What about heart disease? Studies have found a link between high levels of homocysteine in the blood and heart disease. Homocysteine is a byproduct of an amino acid found in foods that contain protein. It is believed that high levels of homocysteine cause the artery walls to become sticky, allowing cholesterol to build up. The verdict is still out on a definite connection, but it is clear that in most healthy individuals the B vitamins — including folic acid, B6 and B12 — protect the body from accumulating excess homocysteine.

Adults with and without heart disease should strive to get 400 micrograms of folic acid per day.

Which foods are high in folic acid?

Many cereals, such as Product 19, are fortified with folic acid and provide 400 micrograms in one serving. Check the label and see how your cereal measures up.

Other good sources include:

Fruit and Juice Serving Size Micrograms
Orange juice one cup 109
Tomato juice one cup 48
Orange one medium 40
Fresh strawberries one cup 26
Banana one medium 22
Grapefruit one-half medium 15
Vegetables Serving Size Micrograms
Spinach, raw one cup 108
Asparagus, cooked five spears 101
Brussels sprouts, cooked from fresh one cup 94
Green peas, cooked one-half cup 47
Romaine lettuce one cup 41
Broccoli, raw one-half cup 31

Tip: To prevent the loss of folic acid in cooking water, try steaming, microwaving or stir-frying fresh vegetables.