What is folate/folic acid?

Folate is the naturally occurring form of folic acid and the precursor to Vitamin B9. It is present in many foods and is activated in the digestive tract. Folic acid is the synthetic version used in dietary supplements and fortified foods and is converted to active B9 in the liver. Our bodies need folate to promote new cell division and growth, especially red blood cells during pregnancy, since blood volume is greatly increased. It is also critical for brain development.

Benefits of folic acid for pregnancy

During pregnancy, a woman’s blood volume will progressively increase beginning in the first trimester around weeks 6-8 and will continue until the third trimester during weeks 32-34. The volume of blood increases by 40-50 percent and the red blood cell mass will increase by 20-30 percent, which creates the need for increased iron and folic acid intake.

“[Folate] is incredibly important in the first few weeks of pregnancy...”

Folic acid has been found to protect against birth defects of the brain and spine called neural tube defects, like anencephaly and spina bifida. Since folate supports the division of cells and brain development, it is incredibly important in the first few weeks of pregnancy, since this is when the embryo’s cells are multiplying to create the body form and spine. Folic acid also helps women to reduce their risk of having a premature or low birth-weight baby.

Where can I find folic acid?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) has taken steps to fortify certain foods so that all women of childbearing age receive the necessary daily dose of folic acid, which is considered to be 400-800 micrograms (0.4-0.8 milligrams). The FDA states that, unfortunately, some Hispanic groups may not benefit as much from this since they have not approved fortification of corn masa flour, which is used to make staples such as tortillas and tamales. To ensure you are getting the proper amount of folic acid, add the following foods to your diet:

  • Leafy green vegetables, such as spinach

  • Beans

  • Bread

  • Pastas

  • Cereals

  • Rice

Lastly, your healthcare provider may suggest a daily folic acid supplement. Be sure to talk about your nutritional choices with your provider to learn more about folic acid.