Young people whose diets are high in folate appear to make better grades in school, according to the first study to look at the relationship between the two — a study that could potentially influence school meals, school teaching programs, and information given to parents.

This new information regarding the folate status of teens points to the importance of monitoring the folate status of children and adolescents.

Swedish researchers, led by Dr. Torbjorn K. Nilsson, a professor of biomedicine at Orebro University Hospital, assessed the diets of 386 15-year-old students using a qualitative food record completed by each student followed by a 24-hour recall. Dietary intake was entered into nutrient analysis software and analyzed for folate content using a Swedish national food database. Final grades obtained by each student after the required nine years of schooling were used as the measure of academic achievement. The possible effects of socioeconomic status and genetics were also observed.

The researchers concluded that the students who had high levels of folate appeared to do better in school than those who had lower levels. Girls, in particular, had significantly higher grades than boys. None of the other possible effects that were observed accounted for the findings.

According to the researchers, "….we contend that there are positive neurodevelopmental effects of nutritional sufficiency, including folate, both during fetal growth and childhood and adolescence, and that it is reasonable to assume that such effects contribute to the positive association between folate intake and academic achievement…"

This new information regarding the folate status of teens points to the importance of monitoring the folate status of children and adolescents. Calling their findings a "public health nutrition concern," the authors said they may also have implications on the provision of school meals, school teaching programs, and the information provided to parents.

Though the study did not address folate supplementation, folate is not a supplement normally taken by adolescents. The elderly often take folate supplements because some studies have associated low levels of folate with dementia and Alzheimer's disease. There is no evidence that taking folate supplements will benefit teenagers.

Folate is a B vitamin that comes from the word "foliage" because it was first discovered in leafy green vegetables. Folic acid is the synthetic form which is better absorbed than naturally occurring folate. Folate functions in the making of DNA and RNA, and insufficient folate is believed to be the cause of certain birth defects of the spine and brain.

Unlike the United States, there is no general folate fortification of food in Sweden. In 1996, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began requiring the addition of folic acid to enriched breads, cereals, flours, corn meals, pastas, rice, and other grain products. Grain foods and cereals are widely consumed in the United States so these products are an important contributor of folic acid to the American diet. However, teenagers who skip breakfast, omitting folate-fortified grains or breakfast cereals, or do not routinely consume other foods rich in folate are more likely to have a low consumption of folate.

Besides fortified grains and cereals, other good sources of folate include dried peas and beans, spinach, asparagus, broccoli, orange juice, lean beef, potatoes, and whole wheat bread.

The study was published in the July 11 online edition of Pediatrics and will appear in the August print issue.