When a woman is pregnant or is trying to conceive, she is usually told to start taking a folic acid supplement to prevent birth defects. Few of us question that recommendation, but maybe we should. The more I’ve been learning about synthetic vitamins, the more concerned I am by what is in our supplements and our food supply. So, why am I concerned about folic acid? I’m so glad you asked! 😉
What is Folic Acid?
Folic acid is the synthetic (man-made form) of the naturally-occurring vitamin called “folate”. Folate is one of the many B vitamins, specifically B9. It is a water-soluble vitamin, meaning that it needs to be consumed regularly. It is needed for quite a few reasons, but the most talked about reason is proper cellular division which is necessary for preventing neural tube defects, a birth defect that occurs between about three and four weeks after conception (source). It is generally agreed that folate and folic acid intake reduces the risk of this birth defect, though there are other possible causes for this birth defect that aren’t as well known (source).
If folic acid helps prevent a dangerous birth defect, why not just take it? Isn’t it worth whatever risks there might be associated with it?
The Dangers of Folic Acid
As I mentioned, folic acid is the man-made version of the God-made folate found in many foods. Unlike folate, it is not in a form our bodies can absorb and use right away. Folic acid has to go through several “conversions” that depend on the body’s ability to make all of those conversions. It turns out that in many studies, unconverted folic acid is found in the bloodstream. We don’t yet know all the different kinds of damage that unconverted substance does to our bodies, but unconverted folic acid in the blood is associated with a decrease in natural killer cells. Those cells are a vital part of the immune system’s defense against tumors and cancer (source).
While real, naturally-occurring folate found in foods prevents cancer, folic acid is linked to an increased risk of many types of cancer. Here are some examples to consider.
- In Chile, hospitalization rates for colon cancer have more than doubled in those over the age of 45 since folic acid was added to foods in 2000 ( source).
- In the US and Canada colon cancer rates have risen after a steady decline since folic acid was added to our food supply (source).
- A three-year study done in Norway where folic acid is not added to food showed a 21% increase in lung cancer for men taking 800mcg of folic acid plus B12 a day (source).
- A study of men taking 1,000mcg of folic acid had more than twice the risk of prostate cancer (source).
Some claim that damage from folic acid only occurs from “large doses”, but those first two examples are referencing normal daily intake by the general population, not mega-doses. Even the two studies I mentioned (which are only a few of the many that are beginning to shed some light on the dangers) are really not outrageous over-doses, compared with what most Americans consume. Consider how much the average American might encounter in a normal day.
- 100% of the RDA in a multivitamin.
- 100% of the RDA in a serving of many breakfast cereals (I looked up several popular ones, such as Total, as references).
- 25-30% of the RDA in a serving of pasta (most people eat far more than one serving)
- 10% of the RDA in each serving of all baked goods made with enriched wheat flour (including bagels, breads, crackers, cookies, etc.). That makes up a lot of the diet of many Americans. A few slices of bread for a sandwich or two for lunch, a handful of crackers in the afternoon, more bread with dinner, baked dessert or cookies for dessert… it really adds up when you’re eating processed foods.
As you can see, the average American could easily be consuming several hundred times the recommended daily amount. In fact, most American kids who are getting at least 200mcg of folic acid a day are actually getting well over the “safe” upper limit because of all the fortification in our food supply (source).
To make all of this even more interesting, proper studies on the long-term safety of *any* amount of regular folic acid supplementation have never been done (source). We don’t really know what kinds of damage is being caused by this man-made supplement, but we are taking it every day in supplements and in our food.
Pregnancy and Folic Acid Supplements
What about all the recommendations to take it if you are, or might become, pregnant? Well, I find the official FDA statements on the matter to be very interesting. There are articles on the FDA website encouraging pregnant woman to get plenty of this synthetic substitute, but when you read the official “precautions” for the “drug”, they claim that studies have not shown it to cause an increased risk of “fetal abnormalities”…. but they admit that studies haven’t shown it to be safe, either. They “cannot rule out the possibility of harm” so they recommend against folic acid intake during pregnancy… unless it is “clearly needed” (source). On top of that, the “harm” that they haven’t yet found is only in regards to immediate harm, not long-term increased risk of cancer or learning disabilities. It would take decades for the long-term risks to be determined.
As you can see, this “safe” little supplement and food additive isn’t nearly as safe as it has been advertised to be. But what is a pregnant (or hoping to be pregnant!) mama to do?? Check back tomorrow to learn all about safe and healthy ways to get plenty of real folate to help prevent birth defects!
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