What is folic acid?

Everyone’s heard of folic acid. The CDC recommends all women of reproductive age take it daily, but what does folic acid actually do for our bodies?

WellTuned spoke with Dr. Edwin Thorpe, medical director at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, to learn more.

Q&A with Dr. Thorpe

1. What is folic acid?

Dr. Thorpe: Folic acid is a type of folate, which is a B vitamin (B-9) that helps with healthy cell growth and function.

Folate helps the body:

  • Turn carbohydrates into energy
  • Create genetic material such as DNA
  • Break down, use and create new proteins (with help from vitamins B-12 and C)
  • Create red and white blood cells

White blood cells help your body fight infections, and red blood cells transport oxygen to organs and tissues. By helping create new red blood cells, folate helps prevent anemia, which is a condition that can make you feel chronically tired and weak.

2. What’s the connection between folic acid and pregnancy?

Dr. Thorpe: Folic acid can help prevent birth defects in the baby’s brain or spine, known as neural tube defects. These happen early in pregnancy — typically 3 or 4 weeks after conception — and many pregnancies are unplanned. So the CDC recommends all women of reproductive age take folic acid.

Most prenatal vitamins and multivitamins contain folic acid, but be sure any supplement you choose has at least 400 micrograms. And if you’ve previously had a pregnancy that was affected by a neural tube defect, talk with your health care provider before trying to become pregnant again.

3. What foods are high in folate or folic acid?

Dr. Thorpe: The healthiest dietary sources of folate (vitamin B-9) are whole foods such as fruits, legumes and vegetables.

Folate is found naturally in:

  • Dark green, leafy vegetables
  • Beans
  • Peas
  • Nuts
  • Oranges
  • Lemons
  • Bananas
  • Melons
  • Strawberries

Folic acid (the synthetic form of folate we add to foods) may be used to enrich rice, pasta, bread and some breakfast cereals. A healthy, balanced diet should provide you with all the folate many people need, but if you don’t eat many folate-rich foods, consider adding a supplement.

More about folate from WellTuned

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also use tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the in the Member Wellness Center under the Managing Your Health tab.

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Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).