If you’ve ever taken a look at the ingredients in cereal, pasta, bread, cookies, or crackers, you may have come across this mysterious-sounding chemical: folic acid. After taking a look at WebMD, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, Medline Plus, PubChem, Healthline, and Genetics Home Reference, here’s what I learned about the stuff:

Also known as C19H19N7O6, folate, or folacin, folic acid (FA) is actually water-soluble vitamin B. FA helps to make and repair DNA as well as to produce red blood cells, which is why a folic acid deficiency can lead to anemia.

So why put this chemical into our food? As it turns out, folic acid has a wide range of uses, from cancer, stroke, and heart disease prevention to treatment of vitiligo, restless leg syndrome, osteoporosis, AIDS, and depression. It also helps with memory and hearing loss, nerve and muscle pain, sleep problems, and the genetic disorder fragile X syndrome, which causes developmental delays.

However, folic acid is most commonly taken by pregnant women to prevent birth defects in the neural tube. These defects include spina bifida (when part of the spine protrudes through the skin of the back) and anencephaly (when the brain and skull form incompletely, almost always causing the infant to die shortly after birth).

In 1998, after Congress cited the importance of folic acid vitamin supplements as a preventative measure against spina bifida, FA became a mandated additive for certain foods. (Gluten-free items seem to be an exception to the list above, so it’s always worth checking the label.)

Folic acid is naturally present in leafy vegetables (such as spinach, lettuce, and broccoli), okra, asparagus, certain fruits (such as lemons, bananas, and melons), beans, nuts, peas, yeast, mushrooms, meat, and orange and tomato juices.

In other words, folic acid is the best friend and vitamin you never knew you had!

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