Folate and folic acid

Folate is a vitamin important for cell growth and reproduction, and is vital for the healthy development of babies. Learn more about folate, and why it is added to some foods.


What is folate?

Folate is a B vitamin that is vital for healthy growth and development of blood cells and nerve tissue. Folate is found naturally in food, especially:

  • green vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, salad greens
  • citrus fruit
  • wholegrain breads and breakfast cereals
  • chickpeas, nuts, dried beans and peas (though cooking reduces the folate level).

Folic acid

Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate. Folic acid may be added to some manufactured foods and drinks, or taken as a vitamin supplement.

Why do you need folate?

Folate is important for cell growth and reproduction. Folate deficiency affects the body’s ability to produce fully functioning red blood cells, and can cause megaloblastic anaemia. This is a blood disorder that causes the body to produce red blood cells that are larger than normal.

How much folate do you need?

The New Zealand Ministry of Health recommends adults eat about 400 micrograms of folate each day. Pregnant and breastfeeding women need more.

Folic acid and pregnancy

Folic acid is important to the healthy development of babies in the womb – particularly during the first 12 weeks, when babies grow most rapidly. Women who don’t get enough folic acid before and during early pregnancy have a higher risk of giving birth to babies with conditions known as neural tube defects. These include spina bifida and anencephaly.

The Ministry of Health recommends folic acid supplements for pregnant women and women looking to conceive.

Folic acid fortification

Fortification is when extra nutrients (such as folic acid) are added to food and drinks during manufacturing. Some foods can be voluntarily fortified with folic acid, including:

  • bread
  • breakfast cereals
  • fruit and vegetable juices
  • milk alternatives, like soy milk
  • food drinks (such as liquid meal supplements).

Folic acid in bread

In 2014, the New Zealand Association of Bakers created a voluntary code of practice, committing it to fortifying between 25% and 50% of breads with folic acid.

Are foods fortified with folic acid labelled?

Yes. Food labels in New Zealand must accurately list what a product contains. If folic acid has been added, it will be on the product ingredients list and sometimes on the nutrition information panel. The panel listing will give the total amount of folate – both natural folate and folic acid – in the product.

What are the risks of folic acid fortification?

Current scientific evidence shows no apparent risk to your health from the estimated increase in the amount of folic acid you’re getting, particularly at the amounts provided from fortified breads.

Find out more

Who to contact

If you have questions about folate or folic acid in food, email info@mpi.govt.nz.

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