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Vegetarian Journal Sept/Oct 2000

Increasing Folate Can Help Lead to Fantastic Health


By Heather Hedrick, MS,RD

This is an exciting time for the well-known nutrient, folate. New research is emerging about the health benefits of folate intake for humans from the time of conception through the golden years. In response to these discoveries, new recommendations and public policies have arisen.

What Are Folate, Folic Acid, and Folacin?
Folate is a B-vitamin essential for normal cell growth and healthy blood. Folate is the form of the vitamin found naturally in foods; folic acid is the form of the vitamin found in dietary supplements. The term folacin can refer to both forms of the vitamin.

How Can Folacin Help Lead to Fantastic Health?
One of the most well-researched areas of the benefits of folacin concerns the proper development of a fetus. Folacin is critical to the prevention of neural tube defects in newborns. Neural tube defects, caused by the improper development of the spine and brain, are the most common disabling birth defects in the US. They can cause paralysis, mental retardation, or death in infants. Adding folacin to the diets of women before conception and within the first month of pregnancy can help to prevent approximately half of the birth defects in this country!

Folacin may also play a role in the prevention of cardiovascular diseases, specifically heart disease and stroke. Researchers are suggesting a link between increased amounts of folacin in the diet and decreased levels of the amino acid homocysteine in the blood. High levels of homocysteine appear to be a strong predictor for heart disease and stroke, possibly even stronger than blood cholesterol levels. However, folacin is only one of several vitamins that help to maintain lower levels of homocysteine; vitamins B6 and B12 have also been shown to be key players.

In the continuing quest to determine the role of nutrition in the prevention of cancer, folacin has emerged as a shining star in preventing colorectal and cervical cancers. Folacin may exert its power over cancer by helping to prevent damage to DNA.

How Much Folacin Is Needed and Where Is It Found?
How much folacin is needed to meet the daily requirements and reap the benefits of this fantastic nutrient? The US Public Health Service recommends that women and men consume at least 400 micrograms of folacin each day. This daily quota can be easily obtained through a balanced and varied diet. Excellent sources of folate include dry beans, fortified breakfast cereals, strawberries, romaine lettuce, orange juice, turnip greens, and spinach. Eating peanuts, broccoli, melon, sunflower seeds, avocado, and tomato juice are other ways to meet the daily allowance for folate.

Recently, a public policy has made it easier for women and men to consume more folacin. In January 1998, the Food and Drug Administration approved the fortification of folic acid to the mixture of vitamins and minerals added to various grain products. One serving of enriched flour, bread, farina, corn grits, cornmeal, rice, or noodle products provides 10 percent of the daily requirement for folic acid (approximately 40 micrograms). However, fortification may not be present in all grain products, such as whole wheat products, which are not typically enriched. Read the nutrition label of the product to determine whether or not folic acid has been added. Do not feel you must switch to enriched grains just for the folic acid; there are many other ways to obtain more than the daily requirement of folacin through whole foods.

To Supplement or Not to Supplement?
For some individuals, folate obtained from the diet may not be enough to prevent disease and optimize health. Folic acid supplementation, through a multivitamin or B-complex vitamin, may be necessary for those lacking variety in their diet, people with chronic diseases, elderly individuals who have a decreased absorption of folic acid, and pregnant women. It is important not to consume more than 1000 micrograms per day, as excess folic acid can mask a vitamin B1deficiency.

Maximizing Folate Consumption
As with most nutrients, it is best to consume folate through whole foods. However, folate is a water soluble vitamin and therefore can be destroyed or lost during cooking and storage. The following guidelines can help to preserve the content of folate in whole foods:

n boil vegetables in a small amount of water and do not overcook
n steam, microwave, or stir-fry vegetables instead of boiling
n eat more raw vegetables
n refrigerate fruits and vegetables to maintain folate levels
n consume fruits and vegetables soon after purchase since folate is lost from foods over time
n dry beans and peas will retain their folate levels, even when cooked for a long period of time in lots of water

Folate is found in foods which are also high in fiber and low in fat, and rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals. Therefore, continue to enjoy plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes to discover the fantastic health benefits of the nutrient folate!

Resources:
Daly LE, Kirke PN, Molloy A, et al. 1995. Folate levels and neural tube defects. JAMA 274:1698-1702

Hine RJ. 1996. What practition- ers need to know about folic acid. JADA 96(5):451-452.

Bailey LB, ed. 1995. Folate in Health & Disease. Marcel- Dekker Publishers, New York. ISBN 0-8247-9280-7.

Websites:
American Dietetic Association, www.eatright.org

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov

The National Women's Health Information Center, www.4women.org

Good Sources of Folate

Food Mcg Folate

Total breakfast cereal (1 oz.) 400
Oatmeal, instant (1 packet) 150
Chickpeas, boiled ( c.) 140
Spinach, cooked ( c.) 130
Black-eyed peas, cooked ( c.) 100
Turnip greens, cooked ( c.) 85
Orange juice ( c.) 80
Romaine lettuce, raw (1 c.) 80
Sunflower seeds (2 T. ) 70
Roasted soybeans (2 T.) 45

All values found in Bowes & Church's Food Values of Portions Commonly Used - 17th edition (Lippincott-Raven Publishers, 1998).


Excerpts from the Sept/Oct 2000 Issue


The Vegetarian Journal published here is not the complete issue, but these are excerpts from the published magazine. Anyone wanting to see everything should subscribe to the magazine.



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