Folic acid is the synthetic version of folate, vitamin B9. Folate is necessary for the creation of DNA and RNA.
It is one of the vitamins that is stressed for pregnant women: perhaps the most well-known benefit of the use of folic acid is its role in the prevention of certain birth defects and developmental disorders.
This is why folic acid is added to so many packaged foods.
What has previously been ignored is that folic acid–because it is synthetic–poses other, unwanted and potentially toxic, side effects.
The Body Can’t Use What it Doesn’t Understand.
As with any synthetic vitamin, the body doesn’t metabolize folic acid in the same way as with naturally-occurring folate. What the body often does with a substance when it can’t figure out what it is or what to do with it is either store it in fat or let it roam around.
Sometimes there are no serious consequences but more likely than not, toxicity will accrue and cause ill effects when levels get too high or the immune system becomes weakened.
In the case of folic acid, while it may help promote healthy fetal development, the remnants that hang around–considering the constant supplementation through food additives–can cause or exacerbate disease later in life.
A study at Newcastle University looked at the effects of folic acid on rats that had breast cancer. What researchers found is that tumors got bigger. A previous study on several site-specific cancers and folic acid’s effect on them indicated no difference between control groups on the progression of disease. This study came after others that found increased cancers as the result of folic acid supplementation. One such study in Norway concluded:
“Treatment with folic acid plus vitamin B12 was associated with increased cancer outcomes and all-cause mortality in patients with ischemic heart disease in Norway, where there is no folic acid fortification of foods.”
When scientists wondered why folic acid was just roaming around the body rather than being metabolized, they found:
“…chronic liver exposure to folic acid in humans may induce saturation, which would possibly explain reports of systemic circulation of unmetabolized folic acid.”
Nutrients from Natural Sources are Recognizable.
What happened when they compared ingestion of folic acid versus the natural folate was that the folate was readily broken down by the digestive system into its usable (and beneficial) components before arriving at the liver for processing; folic acid was not, with around eighty percent (versus four percent of folate) of it unmodified in the same period of time.
The liver then has to do something (or not) with the raw folic acid which is not a natural substance. Too much accumulates over time and voilá!–potential toxicity. You can’t live well without a healthy liver.
Benefits are Considerable–and How You Get Them Matters.
There is, however, no doubt that folic acid supplementation has significantly reduced the incidence of spina bifida and anencephaly, as well as autism spectrum disorders, in children whose mothers took it while pregnant.
In addition, there is correlation between folate and testosterone production, treating vascular disease, and the prevention of cancers. The issue and danger is over-supplementation via fortification with the synthetic folic acid.
It’s Virtually Impossible to OD on Folate Found in Foods.
So how do we get the nutrient without the risk? Through food, of course. There are many exceptional sources for folate in legumes, especially lentils and beans. Turnip and collard greens, organ meats, and beets are also high in folate.
Read your product labels and opt out of foods fortified with synthetic vitamins and minerals. Eating a wide variety of whole foods is a much better option for getting your daily nutrition.