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Eye on Nutrition: Folate and Folic Acid

A key nutrient during pregnancy

WIC food packages and nutrition education are the chief means by which WIC affects the dietary quality and habits of participants. Did you know that these two benefits are among the top reasons for continued participation in WIC (in addition to the work of WIC personnel!), and that consistent 4-year participation in WIC was associated with better diet quality?

Eye on Nutrition brings focus to the foods and nutrients in the WIC food packages to shine a light on their importance to WIC participants. Given how critical folic acid is for all women of reproductive age and pregnant women, so much so that there's a national observance week dedicated to it, this nutrient deserves a closer look.

Be sure to check out folate-rich recipes WIC staff have shared with us.

What is Folate?

Folate is an essential B vitamin that our body uses to create new proteins and cells, and break down old ones to keep us healthy.

Folate vs Folic Acid
Though used interchangeably, they are different - folate occurs naturally in certain foods while folic acid is the man-made form used in supplements and fortified foods, such as rice, pasta, bread, and some breakfast cereals. 


Why is Folate Important?

Women who don’t get enough folate are at risk of having:

  • babies with neural tube defects (NTDs) (birth defects of the brain and spinal cord). Common NTDs include
    • spina bifida (incomplete development of the brain, spinal cord, and/or meninges (the protective covering around the brain and spinal cord)) and
    • anencephaly (in which major parts of the brain and skull are missing).
  • a premature or low birth weight baby.

How Much Folate Do Women Need?

How much folate someone needs depends on their age. The CDC recommends all women of reproductive age consume 400 mcg of folic acid, and pregnant women consume 600 mcg, each day to prevent two types of neural tube defects.

What WIC-Eligible Foods Provide Folate or Folic Acid?

  • Legumes (beans and peas)
  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Dark green leafy vegetables
  • Some other vegetables, like broccoli, asparagus, Brussels sprouts and beets
  • Citrus fruits, like oranges and grapefruits
  • Some other fruits, like avocado, papaya, bananas
  • Eggs

Foods beyond those in the WIC food packages that have folic acid include enriched and fortified foods, as well as other foods where folate is present naturally, such as beef liver. "Fortified" with folic acid means the nutrient is added because it is not naturally found in the food item. "Enriched" means folic acid is added back in after it's lost during processing of the food item.


Is Folate on the Nutrition Facts Label?

It is voluntary for manufacturers to list folate on the Nutrition Facts label. If it's on the label, it will be listed using micrograms (mcg) of dietary folate equivalents (DFEs) because the body absorbs more folic acid from fortified foods and dietary supplements than folate found naturally in foods. Compared to folate found naturally in foods, you actually need less folic acid to get recommended amounts. For example, 240 mcg of folic acid and 400 mcg of folate are both equal to 400 mcg DFE.


Education Resources

You can find resources to use and share with moms and moms-to-be on our Folic Acid – Education Materials and Information Resources page. These include fact sheets, an infographic, videos, podcasts, an interactive quiz and more! Many resources are available in Spanish. Or, you can explore all resources related to folic acid and birth defects.

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