Folic Acid

CDC urges all women of reproductive age to take 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid each day, in addition to consuming food with folate from a varied diet, to help prevent some major birth defects of the baby’s brain (anencephaly) and spine (spina bifida).

About folic acid

Beautiful woman holding pill and glass of water

Folic acid is a B vitamin. Our bodies use it to make new cells. Think about the skin, hair, and nails. These – and other parts of the body – make new cells each day. Folic acid is the synthetic (that is, not generally occurring naturally) form of folate that is used in supplements and in fortified foods such as rice, pasta, bread, and some breakfast cereals.

Learn more about folic acid here.

Why folic acid is important before and during pregnancy

During early development, folic acid helps form the neural tube. Folic acid is very important because it can help prevent some major birth defects of the baby’s brain (anencephaly) and spine (spina bifida).

Women of reproductive age need 400 mcg of folic acid every day

  • All women of reproductive age should get 400 mcg of folic acid each day to get enough folic acid to help prevent some birth defects because
    • About half of U.S. pregnancies are unplanned, and
    • Major birth defects of the baby’s brain or spine occur very early in pregnancy (3-4 weeks after conception), before most women know they are pregnant.
  • When taking folic acid, a higher dose than 400 mcg of folic acid each day is not necessarily better to prevent neural tube defects, unless a doctor recommends taking more due to other health conditions.
    • When planning to become pregnant, women who have already had a pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect should consult with their healthcare provider. CDC recommends that these women consume 4,000 mcg of folic acid each day one month before becoming pregnant and through the first three months of pregnancy.

Learn more about CDC’s folic acid recommendations here.
Learn more about the recommended intake level of folic acid here.

When to start taking folic acid

Every woman of reproductive age needs to get folic acid every day, whether she is planning to get pregnant or not, to help make new cells.

Are folate and folic acid the same thing?

The terms “folate” and “folic acid” are often used interchangeably, even though they are different. Folate is a general term to describe many different types of vitamin B9.

Types of folate can include

  • Folic acid
  • Dihydrofolate (DHF)
  • Tetrahydrofolate (THF)
  • 5, 10-methylenetetrahydrofolate (5, 10-Methylene-THF)
  • 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-Methyl-THF or 5-MTHF).

Food fortification is a way to add vitamins or minerals, or both, to foods. Some rice, pasta, bread, and breakfast cereals are fortified with folic acid. These foods are labeled “enriched.” Folic acid is a specific type of folate that does not generally occur naturally.

Folic acid is ideal to use for food fortification because it is more heat-stable than types of natural food folate. Heat and light can easily break down types of natural food folate. Folic acid is better suited for food fortification because many fortified products, such as bread and pasta, are cooked.6

It’s recommended that women of reproductive age who could become pregnant consume at least 400 micrograms (mcg) of folate every day. However, it’s difficult to get 400 mcg of folate through diet alone. You can get 400 mcg of folic acid each day by taking a vitamin with folic acid in it, eating fortified foods, or a combination of the two, in addition to consuming a balanced diet rich in natural food folate.

How to get enough folic acid

In addition to eating foods with folate from a varied diet, women can get folic acid from

  • Taking a vitamin that has folic acid in it;
    • Most vitamins sold in the United States have the recommended daily amount of folic acid (400 mcg) that women need.
    • Vitamins can be found at most local pharmacy, grocery, or discount stores. Check the label on the bottle to be sure it contains 100% of the daily value of folic acid, which is 400 mcg.
  • Eating fortified foods;
    • You can find folic acid in some breads, breakfast cereals, and corn masa flour.
    • Be sure to check the nutrient facts label, and look for a product that has “100%” next to folate.
  • Getting a combination of the two: taking a vitamin that has folic acid in it and eating fortified foods.

Learn more about where to find folic acid in the U.S. here.

More Information

For more information, visit the Frequently Asked Questions page.

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