What is Folate?
Written by Glenn Rosenberg   
Thursday, 15 October 2009
Folate is the form of a particular B vitamin found in foods. Folate is the generic term for all forms of this vitamin. Folic acid is the man-made or synthetic form of the vitamin. It is found in fortified foods and vitamin supplements. Folic acid is better absorbed and more readily available to the body than folate. In fact, the body absorbs only about 50% of the folate in food. In contrast, about 85% to 95% of the folic acid from supplements and fortified foods is absorbed.

Getting enough folate during pregnancy lowers the risk of neural tube defects in newborns. A neural tube defect occurs when the neural tube fails to close properly. The developing brain or spinal cord is exposed to the amniotic fluid in the woman's uterus. The two most common neural tube defects are anencephaly and spina bifida. People with spina bifida have a defect of the spinal column that can result in varying degrees of disability. Babies with anencephaly do not develop a brain. They are stillborn or die shortly after birth.

Folate is crucial during the first 18 to 30 days of pregnancy. The baby's brain and spinal column are in a critical stage of development during this period. A woman may not even know that she is pregnant at this early stage. Many pregnancies are unplanned, which makes it very important for women to consume enough folate before conception. The National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about 2,500 infants with spina bifida and anencephaly are born each year in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, estimates that 400 mcg of folate per day could result in a 2/3 decrease in this rate.

Folate may also have a role in lowering heart disease risk. Scientists are studying the link between folate and a substance called homocysteine. High homocysteine levels in the blood have been linked with a higher heart disease risk. Homocysteine levels seem to be lower in people who get plenty of folate in their diets.

Current evidence also suggests that folate may have a role in the prevention of some cancers. This is especially true when it is consumed along with a variety of nutrients found in fruits, vegetables, and other foods.