There are a lot of factors that go into choosing the right prenatal vitamin: ingredient quality, doctor-backed formulation, and trimester-specific support, to name a few. But the most crucial thing is ensuring that you’re getting the baseline recommended nutrients to support both your health and your baby’s growth—and one of the most important nutrients your prenatal vitamin needs is folate.
Folate plays a critical role in your baby’s early development. And while you might see folate referred to as “folic acid” on some ingredient lists, it’s important to know that folate and folic acid are not one and the same—and knowing the difference is key to getting the most out of this nutrient.
What is folate?
Folate (also known as vitamin B9) is a nutrient that plays an important role in red blood cell formation and DNA synthesis. Because of this, it’s especially crucial during early pregnancy—you’ll want to supplement with folate both before and during pregnancy to support healthy early neural, heart and face development. This is why it’s important to have enough folate before you even get pregnant and during the first trimester—so that during those first few weeks when you might not even know you’re pregnant, you’re still supporting these key development milestones.1
What are some other benefits of folate?
“Folate is most well known for the prevention of neural tube defects and other midline birth defects,” adds Dr. Caitlin O’Connor, Naturopathic Doctor and Perelel panelist. That said, it could also support your TTC journey—yet another reason to start supplementing with folate prior to pregnancy.
“There is also evidence that it may help promote optimal fertilization and implantation,” she says. “Anyone planning to get pregnant should take folate for at least three months prior to conception and continue through the postpartum period,” Dr. O’Connor suggests.
What is the difference between folate and folic acid?
Simply put, folic acid is the synthetic form of folate—it’s commonly used in supplements and to fortify foods like breakfast cereal, because it’s more heat-stable than its natural counterpart. But there’s one essential caveat with folic acid supplements: Folic acid requires more processing by the body to be utilized, and up to 60 percent of women have a gene variation that interferes with their ability to properly metabolize folic acid.2
Meanwhile, folate refers to the very same vitamin—but in its active form, which is more bioavailable.
Which should I choose for my prenatal vitamin?
Look at it this way: With folate’s outsized role in supporting your baby’s early development and the prevention of birth defects, you’ll want to ensure that you’re doing everything you can to properly absorb this nutrient. There are blood tests that you can take to test for the MTHFR gene—the genetic variation that interferes with the absorption of folic acid. Or you could bypass that step altogether by supplementing with the form of folate that’s more easily absorbed by everyone–even those with the genetic variation.
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It’s precisely why our medical panel formulated our products with methylated folate which, unlike folic acid, is easily converted by the body for absorption. Not only do we use the active form of folate in our Core Prenatal (which you’ll find in our Conception Support Pack and Trimester Packs), but also we add more before conception and during your first trimester when your body needs it most.
How can you incorporate folate into your diet?
To incorporate folate into your diet, reach for green leafy vegetables, Brussels sprouts, legumes, asparagus, eggs, beets, and nuts and seeds. (We love this recipe for folate-rich pesto spinach turkey burgers.)1
That said: “Folate insufficiency is common,” says Dr. O’Connor. So while prioritizing a nutrient-rich diet is always a good idea, when it comes to supporting optimal folate levels, supplementing is important—especially during times when our folate demands are higher, like while trying to conceive or for pregnant women.
For supplementation, Dr. O’Connor notes that the recommended daily amount of folate is 700 mcg. “Although some individuals may benefit from taking up to 4,000 micrograms (mcg), especially if there is a history of neural tube defects,” she says.
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1 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Office of dietary supplements - folate. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements.
2 Pi T, Liang YQ, Xia HY, Liu YQ, You LN, Zhu Z, Wang L, Gu X, Jin XF. Prevalence of the methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase 677C>T polymorphism in the pregnant women of Yunnan Province, China. Medicine (Baltimore). 2020 Nov 6;99(45):e22771. doi: 10.1097/MD.0000000000022771. PMID: 33157923; PMCID: PMC7647581.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and we recommend that you always consult with your healthcare provider. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of Perelel.