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Folic acid is a B vitamin which is vital for the formation of red blood cells. The form of folic acid occurring naturally in food is called ‘folate’.
What does folic acid do?
Folic acid, together with vitamin B12, is necessary to form red blood cells. Deficiency of folic acid can cause a type of anaemia (reduced oxygen-carrying ability of red blood cells) called ‘macrocytic’ (large cell) anaemia. Both vitamins together also help nerves to function properly. Folic acid is also essential for the formation of DNA (genetic material) within every body cell, allowing each cell to replicate perfectly.
Sources of folic acid
Folate is found naturally in a wide variety of foods and is also present in foods fortified with folic acid. As folic acid is a water-soluble vitamin (dissolves easily in water) it is lost from vegetables during cooking. This can be reduced by avoiding over-cooking, and steaming or microwaving vegetables instead of boiling.
Good sources of folic acid
- Spinach, kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli
- Beans and legumes (e.g. peas, blackeye beans)
- Yeast and beef extracts
- Oranges and orange juice
- Wheat bran and other wholegrain foods
- Poultry, pork, shellfish and liver
- Fortified foods (e.g. some brands of breakfast cereals – check the label)
What happens if I don’t get enough?
Folic acid deficiency can result in some general symptoms – tiredness (caused by anaemia), weakness, diarrhoea, loss of appetite and weight loss. Lack of folic acid can also cause headaches, heart palpitations, a sore tongue and behavioural disorders.
Deficiency can occur if the diet is inadequate or if requirements increase (such as during pregnancy). Sometimes deficiency can occur if folic acid losses are excessive (such as Crohn’s disease or untreated coeliac disease) and from the use of some medications such as water tablets (diuretics), or in alcoholism.
Pregnancy and folic acid
The foetus rapidly develops spine and nerve cells in the first few weeks of pregnancy. Inadequate blood levels of folate at this crucial time increase the risk of the baby’s spine developing a ‘neural tube defect’, resulting in spinal malformation called spina bifida.
For this reason, every woman considering pregnancy, and up to the 12th week of pregnancy is advised to:
• take a folic acid supplement, or pregnancy specific vitamin supplement providing 400μg every day
• eat a diet rich in folates and folic acid from foods naturally containing the vitamin and from fortified foods.
Daily recommendations for folate (folic acid) intake (in micrograms)
- Adults and children over 11 years: 200μg
- Any woman considering pregnancy: 200μg plus a supplement* containing 400μg
- Pregnant women: 300μg plus a 400μg supplement* during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy
- Lactating women: 260μg
*Some women need to take 5mg/d of folic acid preconception and up to 12 weeks of pregnancy i.e. if you have had a pregnancy previously affected by neural tube defects or if you have diabetes.
Vitamin B12 is an important nutrient that helps your body keep your nerve cells and blood cells healthy. It also helps your body make DNA, the genetic material in all of your cells. Your body does not make vitamin B12 on its own, so you have to consume food and drinks that have vitamin B12 in order to get it.
How can I get vitamin B12?
All animal foods such as meat, chicken, seafood and eggs contain vitamin B12. It is also found in milk and milk products such as yoghurt, cheese and ice cream.
Some foods have vitamin B12 added(fortified foods). To see if
vitamin B12 has been added, check the nutrition information panel and the
ingredient list on the food packet. Examples include:
- some yeast extracts such as Marmite
- some soy milks and soy products such as vegetarian sausages
- some rice milks
- some almond milks
- some powdered drinks such as Milo, Vitaplan and Complan.
Plant foods including grains, fruit and vegetables do not contain vitamin B12. If you are vegan you are at risk of B12 deficiency.
If you are 65 or older, your body will absorb the vitamin B12 added to fortified foods more easily than the vitamin B12 found in foods naturally.
How much B12 do I need?
Adults need around 2.4 micrograms of vitamin B12 a day, and people who are pregnant or breastfeeding need more.
Each day have:
• At least one serving of meat, chicken, fish or eggs. A serving is a piece
of meat, chicken or fish the size and thickness of the palm of your
hand, or one egg.
• At least two to three servings of milk or milk products. A serving is 1
cup (250 ml) of milk, 1 pottle (150 g) of yoghurt or 2 slices (40 g) of
• Vegetables, fruit, breads and cereals don’t contain vitamin B12. But
you should still eat these foods every day as they provide a range of
other important nutrients to keep you healthy.
If you are vegetarian, milk and milk products can provide enough vitamin
B12. Each day have at least two to three servings of milk or milk products. Eat eggs regularly.
If you are vegan, have vitamin B12 fortified soy, almond, or rice milk daily.
One cup (250ml) provides almost 50% of your daily vitamin B12 needs.
Include mushrooms and other plant-based fortified foods such as soy
sausages and yeast extract. If you don’t regularly eat vitamin B12 fortified
foods you may need a vitamin B12 dietary supplement.