The achievement of optimal folate status to prevent neural-tube defects, and possibly other diseases, is hindered by the well-recognised incomplete bioavailability of the natural folates found in foods compared with the synthetic vitamin, folic acid. Folate bioavailability from different foods is considered to be dependent on a number of factors, including the food matrix, the intestinal deconjugation of polyglutamyl folates, the instability of certain labile folates during digestion and the presence of certain dietary constituents that may enhance folate stability during digestion. There is conflicting evidence as to whether the extent of conjugation of polyglutamyl folate (in the absence of specific inhibitors of deconjugation in certain foods) is a limiting factor in folate bioavailability. Estimates of the extent of lower bioavailability of food folates compared with folic acid (relative bioavailability) show great variation, ranging anywhere between 10 and 98%, depending on the methodological approach used. The lack of accurate data on folate bioavailability from natural food sources is of particular concern in those countries in which there is no mandatory folic acid fortification, and therefore a greater reliance on natural food folates as a means to optimise status. Apart from the incomplete bioavailability of food folates, the poor stability of folates in foods (particularly green vegetables) under typical conditions of cooking can substantially reduce the amount of vitamin ingested and thereby be an additional factor limiting the ability of food folates to enhance folate status. A recent workshop convened by the Food Standards Agency concluded that gaining a better understanding of folate bioavailability in representative human diets is a high priority for future research.
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