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Key facts

  • Folate is one of the B-group vitamins.
  • Folate is called 'folic acid' when it comes in the form of a food additive or supplement.
  • Your body needs folate to grow and develop.
  • Folate is important in pregnancy as it helps to prevent your baby having neural tube defects (problems with their brain or spinal cord).

What is folate?

Folate is a B-group vitamin that your body needs to grow and develop. Folate is found naturally in foods such as green leafy vegetables.

Everyone needs folate, but it's especially important during pregnancy. A lack of folate can lead to differences in the development of the brain and spinal cord in babies. These are called neural tube defects.

What is folic acid?

Folic acid is the synthetic version of folate. Folic acid is more easily absorbed than folate.

In Australia, folic acid is added to all bread making flour, except for organic and gluten free flour. This is a government program to help protect babies against developing neural tube defects.

Folic acid can also be added to breakfast cereals made from wheat flour and is found in some dietary supplements.

What does folate do?

Your body uses folate to:

Folate is especially important during pregnancy and in infancy because these are periods of rapid growth.

What foods are good sources of folate?

Folate should be an important part of your normal diet. You can probably get all the folate you need from your diet. Unless you need extra folate — such as when you're planning a pregnancy or are pregnant.

Some good food sources of folate are:

  • green leafy vegetables — such as spinach, kale, broccoli, bok choy, dark coloured lettuce
  • legumes — beans, peas, chickpeas, soybeans, lima beans and lentils
  • fruit — citrus fruits such as oranges, bananas, strawberries, pawpaw and avocado
  • breads and cereals made from wheat flour
  • tofu
  • eggs

In Australia, wheat flour used in bread making must contain folic acid. This is to help reduce the number of babies with neural tube defects.

Organic and gluten free breads and bread made from other grains don't need to contain folic acid.

Some manufacturers choose to add folic acid to other foods including:

  • breakfast cereals
  • yeast spreads
  • fruit juice

Folic acid must be listed in the ingredient list on the food label.

If you're pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant, you should take a folic acid supplement to reach your target of 600 micrograms per day.

How much folate do I need?

Everyone needs folate, but the amount you need changes depending on your age. The Australian Government suggests the following folate intakes.


  • 1 to 3 years — 150 micrograms per day
  • 4 to 8 years — 200 micrograms per day
  • 9 to 13 years — 300 micrograms per day


  • 18 years and older (men and non-pregnant women) — 400 micrograms per day
  • pregnant women — 600 micrograms per day
  • breastfeeding women — 500 micrograms per day

Folate and pregnancy

Folate in early pregnancy is important for the healthy development of your baby.

Folate is needed for the growth and development of the 'neural tube'.

The neural tube is a layer of cells that goes on to form the brain and spinal cord. If this tube doesn't close properly, it causes a neural tube defect such as spina bifida.

Do I need to take a folic acid supplement?

It's best to take a daily folic acid supplement even before conception (you are pregnant). You should also continue to eat high-folate foods.

In Australia, a daily supplement of 400 micrograms of folic acid is recommended. This should be taken at least 1 month before and 3 months after falling pregnant.

As many pregnancies are unplanned, it's advised that you follow a folate rich diet throughout your childbearing years.

What happens if I don't get enough folate?

Folate deficiency (when you don't get enough folate) is one of the most common vitamin deficiencies in Australia. The people who are most at risk of folate deficiency are:

  • pregnant and breastfeeding women
  • people having kidney dialysis
  • people who drink too much alcohol
  • people with liver disease
  • those who take certain medicines, such as those used to treat seizures

Folate deficiency anaemia

If you don't get enough folate, you may develop a condition called folate deficiency anaemia.

With this type of anaemia, your body makes red blood cells that are larger than normal and don't work properly.

The main symptoms of folate deficiency anaemia are:

  • extreme fatigue (tiredness)
  • mouth ulcers
  • muscle weakness

Folate deficiency anaemia is treated with folic acid. Many of the signs of folate deficiency improve with treatment. But some problems caused by the condition can be irreversible.

When should I see my doctor?

See your doctor as soon as possible if you think you could have a folate deficiency. Folate deficiency will not go away on its own and needs treatment.

You can have your folate levels checked by having a blood test. If you have folate deficiency, you will probably need to take folic acid tablets for a few months.

Resources and support

Visit Nutrition Australia to learn more about healthy eating.

Eat for Health uses the Australian dietary guidelines to give advice about the amount and types of food you need to be healthy.

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: February 2024

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