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Folic acid does not cause cancer--so who made the mistake?

Science is a great servant but a poor master. Not infrequently, it can exemplify what Harvard math professor Tom Lehrer satirized as where "the important thing is to understand what you're doing, rather than to get the right answer." Just because a published study suggests something does not make it true.

I never liked math very much, and I still don't. But I am indebted to dedicated math teachers who taught me in spite of myself. Decades ago, one such teacher gave me wise advice that spans all disciplines: "Look at your answer. Does your answer make sense?"

So when research suggests that the vitamin folic acid somehow causes lung or colon cancer, it is time to hit the books. It may even occasionally be necessary to hit them right out of the way, and use common sense instead.

Folate, once known as vitamin B9, is named after the dark green leafy vegetables that it was first extracted from. Folium is Latin for "leaf." Leaves and greens are high in folate. Herbivorous animals get plenty of folate because they eat plenty of foliage. Carnivorous animals also get plenty of folate, because they consume herbivorous animals. In the wild, this means the entire animal, including its abdominal organs full of the prey's last meal of partially digested vegetation. Indeed, the viscera are typically the first thing a predator eats.

If folate caused cancer, the whole animal kingdom would have a lot of it. And while wild animals have their own problems, cancer is rarely one of them.

If you look at the research suggesting a human cancer connection, it does not say that folate in food causes cancer. (1), (2) The research only points to folic acid, specifically as found in supplements, as the bogeyman.

But there is virtually no difference whatsoever between the two forms of this nutrient. Folate and folic acid are different only in whether the carboxylic acid groups have dissociated or not. Folic acid's molecular formula is C19, H19, N7, 06. Folate is C19, H18, N7, 06. The difference? Folate has one less hydrogen cation (H +). A hydrogen cation is a proton. A single proton. I have never seen evidence that protons cause cancer.

If folate/folic acid somehow caused cancer, it would have to be the rest of the molecule that is the problem. But most research shows that folic acid/folate prevents cancer. It is well known that persons eating plant-based diets have a significantly lower risk of cancer. In addition to providing nutrients, eating more vegetation means more fiber and less constipation, valuable for preventing colon cancer. Herbivorous animals are definitely not constipated. Ask any dairy farmer, and you can start with me: many years ago, I used to milk 120 cows twice daily. When you walk behind Bossy, look out.

As for lung cancer, the research accusing folic acid also happens to show that 94% of the study subjects who developed lung cancer were either current or former smokers. Smoking causes cancer. Animals do not smoke. But they do eat a lot of foliage, either by grazing on greens or gorging on guts.

Both studies claiming that folic acid causes cancer were published in the journal of the American Medical Association, which also contains a large amount of pharmaceutical advertising. JAMA is among the journals that peer-reviewed research has shown to be biased against vitamins due to vested interests. (3)

What is more likely: that a small group of scientists made an error or two, or that all of Nature did? On this one, I am backing the animals. 1.8 million species can't be all wrong.


(1.) Boyles S. Folic acid, B12 may increase cancer risk [online article]. WebMD. Nov. 17, 2009.; original study: Ebbing M, Bonaa KH, Nygard O, et al. Cancer incidence and mortality after treatment with folic acid and vitamin B12. JAMA. 2009 Nov 18;302(19):2119-2126.

(2.) Associated Press. High doses of folic acid may increase colon cancer risk [online article]. Fox June 5, 2007.,0933,278237.00.html; original study: Cole BF, Baron JA, Sandler RS, et al. Folic acid for the prevention of colorectal adenomas: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA. 2007 Jun 6;297(21):2351-2359.

(3.) Orthomolecular Medicine News Service. Pharmaceutical advertising biases journals against vitamin supplements [online article].; original study: Kemper KJ, Hood KL Does pharmaceutical advertising affect journal publication about dietary supplements? BMC Complement Altern Med. 2008 Apr 9;3:11. Full text at: or

Andrew W. Saul taught biology, nutrition, and health science at the college level. He is the author of Doctor Yourself and Fire Your Doctor! and, with Dr. Abram Hoffer, coauthor of Orthomolecular Medicine for Everyone and The Vitamin Cure for Alcoholism. Saul is featured in the documentary film Food Matters. He is on the editorial board of the journal of Orthomolecular Medicine.

Nutritional Medicine is Orthomolecular Medicine

Orthomoleeular medicine uses safe, effective nutritional therapy to fight illness. For more information:

The peer-reviewed Orthomolecular Medicine News Service is a nonprofit and noncommercial informational resource. To subscribe at no charge:

Editorial Review Board

Ralph K. Campbell, MD (USA)

Carolyn Dean, MD, ND (Canada)

Damien Downing, MD (United Kingdom)

Michael Gonzalez, DSc, PhD (Puerto Rico)

Steve Hickey, PhD (United Kingdom)

James A. Jackson, PhD (USA)

Bo H. Jonsson, MD, PhD (Sweden)

Thomas Levy, MD, JD (USA)

Jorge R. Miranda-Massari, PharmD (Puerto Rico)

Erik Paterson, MD (Canada)

Gert E. Shuitemaker, PhD (Netherlands)

Andrew W. Saul, PhD (USA), editor and contact person:

by Andrew W. Saul

Editor-in-Chief, Orthomolecular Medicine News Service
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Author:Saul, Andrew W.
Publication:Townsend Letter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2011
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