The other night we finished a delicious meal of pasta Bolognese and my husband asked what was in the gluten-free pasta. I grabbed the box and, as I scanned it, my face fell. The pasta was fortified with a vitamin and mineral mix, including Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin and Folic Acid! If you have MTHFR, consuming Folic Acid is a big no, no. Our bodies can’t process it and the excess ends up being stored as toxins in our organs and tissue. I was so busy looking for a gluten-free product that I didn’t think to check the box for folic acid fortification. This usually wasn’t a problem at the organic supermarkets where I shop.
Although the names are often used interchangeably, there is a big difference between naturally occurring folate and folic acid. The linked article explains this really well but basically folic acid is an inactive form, added to food because it is more stable. The human body has to convert that substance into a form of folate that the body can use. But if you have MTHFR defects, your body can’t convert this folic acid and it builds up in your system. One of the things that likely got me into trouble was my consumption of more than 800 mcg folic acid for over a year when we were trying to conceive. I believe I now have circulating unmetabolized folic acid in my system, which I still haven’t figured out how to get rid of.
Since 1998, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been requiring food manufacturers to add folic acid to grain products like cereal, bread, flour, pasta and rice. This practice also goes on in countries like Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, Chile, New Zealand and South Africa.
This is an issue whether you have MTHFR gene mutations or not. Even the Harvard School of Health recommends against the consumption of fortified foods. When I started reading about this issue I was shocked. Granted this knowledge is coming at the same time as my discovery that I have the MTHFR genetic defect, but I think even those who are not affected by MTHFR in their bodies will have the same reaction to the research. The primary reason for forced folic acid ingestion was to lower the incidence of neural tube defects in newborn babies. In the United States, this has resulted in a 30% reduction. But what about those of us who have MTHFR and are trying to conceive? Even one of the most popular pregnancy and conception book series out there didn’t warn me that I might be one of the many women for whom folic acid is completely useless. So here we are taking loads of the stuff, increasing our own toxicity, and we can still end up with birth defects or miscarriages. That’s what they don’t tell you.
Meanwhile, people who aren’t even pregnant or trying to conceive are receiving a heavy dose of this unnatural folic acid. If 30-40% of the population as estimated does have MTHFR gene defects, then could those people be poisoned by this program? As mentioned in this research article that examines the fortification issue from both sides, potentially yes. The effects have not been studied adequately enough. The article mentions that the addition of folate to established tumors has previously been shown to cause an “acceleration phenomenon” in humans. But the FDA still defends itself while others have posited this same question.
Unmetabolized folic acid can cause health problems for all people that don’t show up for many years. It can decrease natural killer cell cytotoxicity and impair the body from responding to arthritis, cancer and anti-malarial drugs. In the elderly, who often have B12 deficiencies, folic acid can cause cognitive impairment and anemia. And while folic acid can have a protective effect against certain cancers, it can accelerate the growth of tumors already present. For me, it’s simply too risky to ingest this substance. Alternatively, I encourage women to find out their MTHFR status and take the appropriate form of folate for them. If you’re having sex and know that pregnancy might be a risk, do this as a precaution. The information about folic acid while trying to conceive is out there. Until studies can prove that folic acid is safe for everyone else, I don’t believe that other people should be dosed with a substance that could harm them. And especially not at the levels unwitting consumers are being exposed to.
Fortunately you don’t have to be a reluctant victim of this fortification. Let this be a reminder to always check your packaging. If you are buying rice, pasta, oatmeal, cornmeal, products made with flour (crackers, biscuits, cookies, baking mixes, etc.), or even soy milk, ALWAYS check the label. If you see the words “enriched” or “fortified,” the product probably contains folic acid. And don’t forget about dietary supplements. Many multi-vitamins and prenatal vitamins contain the inactive form. Other vitamin or mineral blends may sneak it in there as a supplementary ingredient. While you’re at it, keep an eye out for cyanocobalamin (the inactive form of B12) and B6. If you have MTHFR you want the active forms of these vitamins, which means specific types of methylfolate instead of Folic Acid (see the linked article before purchasing active B9 supplements), methylcobalamin and pyridoxal-5-phosphate (P5P), which is active B6.
In my next post I’ll talk about where you can get the nutrients a MTHFR body needs from natural foods. Supplements are fine if you need them, but it’s always better to get your vitamins and minerals naturally from food. Unfortunately, many of us have issues with poor absorption because of leaky gut and other issues, so this is not always possible. But you should be armed with the knowledge of what foods are best for you to eat and what supplements you should and should not ingest.