Folic acid vs folate: Their differences and similarities

Folic acid and folate are both different forms of vitamin B9. In this article, you’ll learn about the key differences and similarities between folic acid and folate.

A woman taking folic acid supplement standing close to a table with oranges

Key takeaways

  • Folic acid is the synthetic form of vitamin B9, while folate is naturally occurring. While folic acid is added to fortify foods like rice and cereals, folate is found naturally in leafy vegetables and citrus fruits.
  • Both forms of vitamin B9 are essential nutrients helpful in forming new cells and DNA.
  • Pregnant women are usually placed on folic acid because the demand for folate increases during pregnancy, and they may not get enough from food. Folic acid supplementation enables the proper formation of the baby, and low levels of the vitamin in pregnant women can cause birth defects.

Folic acid and folate are both forms of vitamin B9, an essential nutrient needed for DNA formation and cell growth. Vitamin B9, like all other B-complex vitamins, is a water-soluble vitamin readily excreted in the urine.

Folic acid is the synthetic form of vitamin B9, while folate is naturally occurring. Since these are both forms of vitamin B9, they share some similarities and differences. Although most people use both forms of vitamin B9 interchangeably, they have key differences that are important to note. 

What is folic acid?

Folic acid is the synthetic form of vitamin B9, usually added to fortify certain foods like bread, rice, and cereals. It is also present in supplements and multivitamins. 

When consumed, folic acid is first broken down into its active form by the liver before the body can use it. Hence, it takes more time for the body to use folic acid when compared to folates.

Also, supplementation with folic acid in pregnancy helps prevent neural tube defects in babies.

What is folate?

Folate is the naturally occurring form of vitamin B9 in foods like whole grains, leafy vegetables, and citrus fruits. Folate is usually preferred to folic acid because it is easily converted into an active form in the gut and absorbed by the body.

However, overcooking can easily destroy folate, so it’s best to cook foods containing folate lightly. Folate is also available in multivitamins and as supplements.

Folic acid vs. folate: How they differ

Folic acid and folate have similar functions in the body. They both help in the formation and growth of new cells, the formation of genetic materials, and protein synthesis. Also, folic acid and folate help prevent birth defects in pregnant people.

However, folic acid and folate differ in their sources, metabolism, and absorption. For instance, the body can absorb about 85% of folic acid but only about 50% of folate.

The table below shows the significant differences between folic acid and folate:

Comparing folic acid vs folate

Folic Acid



Food manufacturers use it to fortify/enrich foods like rice, bread, and flour. 

Folate occurs naturally in leafy vegetables, beans, and citrus fruits.


The body absorbs about 85% of folic acid.

The body absorbs about 50% of folate.


The liver metabolizes folic acid into the active form of vitamin B9.

The small intestine breaks down folate into the active form of vitamin B9.


Folic acid is more stable and not easily broken down.

Heat easily breaks down folate.

Side effects

Too much folic acid intake may cause nausea, loss of appetite, and bloating. 

Consuming lots of folate rarely causes side effects

Is folate the same as vitamin B9?

Yes. Folate is the same as vitamin B9.

Folate is simply the naturally occurring form of vitamin B9.

Is folic acid better absorbed in the body than folate?

Yes. Folic acid is better absorbed in the body than folates.

Folate is less bioavailable than folic acid and needs an enzyme called folate reductase to act on it and convert it to folate monoglutamates before it can be absorbed.

What are the benefits of folic acid and folate?

Folic acid and folate both have similar uses in the body. Here are two essential benefits of folic and folate.

1. Proper red blood cell formation

Folic acid and folate promote normal growth and the formation of red blood cells. 

Insufficient folic acid or folate in the body leads to the formation of large but underdeveloped red blood cells. This condition is known as megaloblastic anemia. 

2. Fetal growth and development

Folic acid and folate are essential nutrients needed for the proper growth and development of the fetus. Women of childbearing age and those who are pregnant should eat folate-rich foods and take folic acid supplements to prevent birth defects during pregnancy.

Insufficient folic acid or folate deficiency in pregnant people may lead to spina bifida - failure of the baby’s spinal column to close, and anencephaly - a fatal condition caused by incomplete brain development.

Folic acid or folate for pregnancy? Which is better?

Since folate is easily broken down and absorbed in the body, it is better for pregnancy.

However, folic acid is the most easily accessible form of vitamin B9 and a necessary pregnancy supplement. Hence, it is vital to find a balance between the two.

When pregnant, you should take folic acid supplements and eat folate-rich foods like legumes, nuts, vegetables, and citrus fruits to ensure proper growth and development of the fetus. 

Seeking medical attention for folate deficiency

Folate deficiency is a rare deficiency that occurs in certain individuals. The occurrence of folate deficiency can be due to genetics, diseases of the gastrointestinal tract that may reduce folate absorption, excessive alcohol intake, medications such as anti-seizure medications, pregnancy, or insufficient intake of folate-rich foods.

Symptoms of folate deficiency include:

  • Headache
  • Weakness
  • Irritability 
  • Fatigue
  • Pale skin
  • Poor growth
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Shortness of breath

If you notice any of these symptoms, ensure you see your doctor. In severe cases, folate deficiency may lead to neural tube defects, anemia, and increased risks of cardiovascular diseases.

Foods like fortified rice, cereals, leafy vegetables, and citrus fruits can help prevent or treat folate deficiency. You can also take folic acid or folate supplements. However, it’s up to your doctor or healthcare provider to recommend the appropriate folic acid dose you must consume.


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). Folic Acid. 
  2. National Institutes of Health. (2022). Folate
  3. Milman N. (2012). Intestinal absorption of folic acid - new physiologic & molecular aspects.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023). What is Spina Bifida.
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023). Facts about Anencephaly.
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023). Folic Acid Recommendations.