Folic acid – an essential vitamin for life

Folic acid is an essential vitamin for us humans. But our bodies can obtain only a limited amount from food. What are the consequences of a folic acid deficiency and how can it be avoided?

19.04.2021

Daniela Diener

Folic acid is a vitamin, also known as B9 or folate, that is responsible primarily for growth processes and cell division. In the early stages of pregnancy, the cells divide billions of times – which is why folic acid is particularly important during this time. The human body cannot produce folate by itself, which means we have to get it exclusively from our food. The term “folate” is from the Latin word “folium”, which means “leaf”. This refers to the fact that folic acid is concentrated in green vegetables and salad, such as spinach, kale and lettuce.

Folic acid is the synthetically produced form of the water-soluble vitamin folate. It comes in both a natural and synthetic form. The human body can obtain only about 50% of folic acid from food, whereas it can absorb nearly 100% of synthetic folic acid.

Folic acid from food and from synthetic products (e.g. vitamin tablets) are therefore available to the body in different ways. That is why the term “folate equivalent” is used for quantities, as it takes these differences into account. 1 microgram of folate equivalent is equal to 1 microgram of dietary folate or 0.5 micrograms of synthetic folic acid. 

How much folic acid do we need?

Getting enough folic acid from our food is not easy. But with a healthy, varied diet, we can take important steps to prevent a deficiency.

Adults should consume 300 micrograms of folate equivalent through food per day. You should consume about 550 micrograms per day if you’re pregnant and 450 micrograms per day if you’re breastfeeding.

The following foods contain a particularly high concentration of folic acid:

Vegetables

  • 100 g kale: 187 micrograms folic acid
  • 100 g spinach: 192 micrograms folic acid
  • 100 g broccoli: 110 micrograms folic acid

Pulses

  • 100 g chickpeas: 340 micrograms folic acid
  • 100 g lentils: 200 micrograms folic acid
  • 100 g soya beans: 250 micrograms folic acid

Grains

  • 100 g wheatgerm: 271 micrograms folic acid
  • 100 g wheat bran: 159 micrograms folic acid
  • 100 g wholemeal rye flour: 43 micrograms folic acid

Recipes for a diet rich in folic acid

From steamed pak choi to cabbage roulade to broccoli pesto: the Helsana Coach app has many dishes with a high folic acid content, and much more. Download now.

What happens if we do not have enough folic acid?

Folic acid is a key vitamin for us. In fact, it is essential for life. A folic acid deficiency can cause a range of health problems.

Anaemia

A folic acid deficiency manifests primarily in the form of anaemia. Folic acid plays a key role in the formation of red blood cells in bone marrow. These blood cells carry oxygen around the body. A lack of red blood cells can cause symptoms such as dizziness, fatigue or breathlessness.

Abnormalities in embryonic development

This vitamin promotes cell division and function. For that reason, women in the early stages of pregnancy need a great deal of folic acid. A folic acid deficiency increases the risk of developmental problems in the embryo’s central nervous system. A well-known example is the “open” back in newborns (spina bifida; neural tube defect).

Arteriosclerosis

A folic acid deficiency can lead to increased levels of homocysteine – a specific amino acid – in the blood. This increases the risk of arteriosclerosis later in life, particularly in the blood vessels around the heart and the brain. 

Depression

Scientists also believe there may be a link between folic acid deficiency and depression. Folic acid is therefore often used to supplement treatment for depression.

Skin ageing

Folic acid also plays an important role in cell division in our skin. Skin cells renew quickly. This is because they need to maintain the protection of the top layer of skin. Without folic acid, this protective layer loses its elasticity and tension firmness, meaning that wrinkles develop more quickly. 

Looking for some healthy eating tips?

Our Health Consultation advisors will show you what steps you can take for a balanced diet.

How can we prevent a folic acid deficiency?

As the body often cannot get enough folic acid from food, we should ensure that we prioritise healthy foods. Remember the following tips:

Choose natural foods with a high folic acid content

It’s important to incorporate foods with folic acid firmly into your meal plan. The best natural sources of folic acid include wheat germ, vegetables, fruit, pulses and liver.

Store food correctly and prepare it carefully

Folic acid is sensitive to light and heat. Ensure you use the food as soon as possible after buying it and prepare it carefully – with little heat and little water.

Buy foods enriched with folic acid

There are plenty of food products available on the market that have been enriched with folic acid, including bread, snacks and drinks. They are identified with the folic acid label and are available in health food shops, smaller grocery shops and supermarkets.

Women who are pregnant or want to conceive should take folic acid tablets

In addition to eating healthily, women who are pregnant or want to conceive are also recommended to take folic acid in a synthetic form. Ideally, women who want to conceive should take folic acid tablets or capsules at least four weeks before conception and until the 12th week of pregnancy (recommended daily intake: 400 micrograms of synthetic folic acid). Be sure to consult your doctor in advance. 

And remember: smoking, alcohol and certain medications increase the amount of folic acid you need.

Products with the folic acid label (in German)

Conclusion

Folic acid is relatively easy to integrate into your daily meal plan. Fresh fruit and vegetables are very important – ideally, you should eat five portions a day (one portion = one handful). However, it’s not only important to eat a balanced diet, but also enjoy your meals in peace. 

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