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A simple B vitamin, folate has benefits for our bodies at many ages and stages, writes Larraine Sathicq.
Women have been advised for some time to increase their intake of the b-vitamin folate before conception and in early pregnancy in order to reduce the number of babies being born with birth defects such as spina bifida.
But what about those of us who eat healthy diets and aren't likely to be pregnant could we be getting too much of a good thing?
According to Mark Lawrence, Associate Professor in Public Health Nutrition at Deakin University, it is possible to go overboard with the folic acid in vitamin supplements and fortified foods and there are definite safety concerns if you go over 1000mcg of folic acid per day.
"Folate is essential for health and, as a water-soluble vitamin, it is difficult to overconsume," he explains. "But because folic acid is now being added to so many foods such as fortified cereal, juice, bread as well as folic acid supplements and multivitamin supplements containing folic acid, you could be getting
too much," says Lawrence.
Although some public health experts questioned the wisdom of mandatory folic acid fortification of our daily bread, Lawrence says that now the deed is done the best advice is to be aware of how much folic acid you're taking by reading the listed ingredients of food products and vitamins. If you're worried about the folic acid in bread, he adds, you don't have to give up bread altogether because the rules say flour used to make organic bread doesn't have to be fortified.
Folate and men
A 2009 study of 643 men found those who took a daily 1mg supplement were more than twice as likely to develop prostate cancer. The researchers estimated that the 10-year risk for those taking folic acid at 9.7 percent, compared to a 3.3 percent risk for men given the placebo. The men with higher blood concentrations of folate from dietary sources had a slightly reduced risk of prostate cancer, leading the researchers to think it may be due to synthetic versus natural folate.
While Canadian research in 2006 found women who had a high total folate intake increased their breast cancer risk by 32 per cent, a review of available studies did not find evidence of a link, says Dr Helen Zorbas, chief executive of the National Breast and Ovarian Cancer Centre.
"Most women can fulfil their folate requirements through a balanced diet," says Zorbas. "Some women may be advised to take supplements based on their individual health needs and should continue to take these as prescribed."
Folate is crucial in early pregnancy but taking high doses throughout the entire pregnancy might not be all good. A study of 550 mothers-to-be by the University
of Adelaide found that women who continue to take folate in later pregnancy are 30 per cent more likely to have a child with asthma. Associate Professor Michael Davies who led the study suggests talking to your doctor about how much and how long to take folate, as taking it after the first trimester will not reduce the risk of neural tube defects.
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