If you look at the ingredients list of many packaged food labels, such as breakfast cereals, wheat flour, all breads and bakery goods (except those produced and labelled as "organic"), yeast spreads (vegemite etc), fruit juice and other foods, and even multivitamin supplements, they contain "folic acid". This article will explain a little about what this misunderstood ingredient is and how it can affect your health.
"Folic acid" is an artificially synthesised form of folate or vitamin B9. Folate, however, is the natural form of this vitamin, found in "foliage" sources, ie plant foods, especially in green leafy vegetables, broccoli and similar vegetables, many fruits, legumes and lentils, avocado, nuts and seeds, ground vegetables like beets and carrots, and many other sources.
Folate is needed for DNA synthesis and cell growth, production of red blood cells, for good mental health, energy production and many other activities. A deficiency in folate can cause many health effects, including anaemia, mental health issues (depression), dental diseases, skin conditions, and more. One of the main deficiency conditions of concern is an increased risk of birth defects in a baby's brain and spine, such as spina bifida.
Sadly, the Australian Food Standards organisation (FSANZ) makes it mandatory that folic acid is added to all wheat cereals, flour and bakery goods, except "100% organic" products and breads made from other grains such as rye, rice and corn! At least FSANZ and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (corporate watchdog) admits that products containing folic acid cannot claim that the product is "natural", as folic acid is NOT a natural substance!
In an attempt to prevent spina bifida birth defects, FSANZ decided to add folic acid to common staple food products - breads and cereals - and thus try to increase the daily intake of artificial "folate" in pregnant women. Why not just do an advertising campaign to get people to eat more vegies instead?!
Folic acid is not the same as folate - it is metabolised differently in the body, and thus has different effects, and like all artificial medications (which is what it is), it also causes a lot of unintended side effects.
Folic acid is readily absorbed into the body, often more so than for natural folate. However the natural folate is much more bioavailable (ie usable), but folic acid can actually block the effects of the natural folate, and over time this can lead to deficiency conditions mentioned above.
People who may have the MTHFR gene mutation (see my other recent article on this topic), will have huge issues with any foods containing folic acid. The MTHFR enzyme is needed to activate folate and folic acid, but people with this genetic mutation cannot effectively metabolise folic acid, and so levels of this artificial vitamin will rise to toxicity and cause major health conditions such as increased inflammation, oxidative damage, heart disease, and mental health disorders. Very sadly, I see a lot of female clients with infertility issues or recurrent miscarriages while on folic acid supplements for fertility and pregnancy. Folic acid in a female with the MTHFR gene mutation will CAUSE the recurrent miscarriages. This heartbreaking situation can simply be prevented by 1) getting a MTHFR test, and 2) avoiding folic acid supplements and foods, and 3) eating more folate-rich vegetables instead.
The decision of the authorities to force an artificial vitamin (effectively a "drug") onto most people in attempt to prevent a simple nutrient deficiency seems insane - it doesn't fix the cause of the problem, and actually creates MORE health problems! Recent research suggests that folic acid in cereals and bread or bakery products should not only be avoided by people with the MTHFR mutation, but EVERYONE, because of the negative effects it can have. Simply eat more plant based foods instead to get your daily requirement of natural folate!
If you have noticed that you feel worse after eating cereals, bread products, or supplements with folic acid, or if you are female and have had multiple miscarriages, you may have the MTHFR gene mutation. A simple blood test can be ordered to check for this, as well as advice for improving your diet to getting enough natural folate for a healthy pregnancy!