Red cell or serum folate: what to do in clinical practice?

Clin Chem Lab Med. 2013 Mar 1;51(3):555-69. doi: 10.1515/cclm-2012-0639.


Folate deficiency has been linked to diverse clinical manifestations and despite the importance of accurate assessment of folate status, the best test for routine use is uncertain. Both serum and red cell folate assays are widely available in clinical laboratories; however, red cell folate is the more time-consuming and costly test. This review sought to evaluate whether the red cell assay demonstrated superior performance characteristics to justify these disadvantages. Red cell folate, but not serum folate, measurements demonstrated analytical variation due to sample pre-treatment parameters, oxygen saturation of haemoglobin and haematocrit. Neither marker was clearly superior in characterising deficiency but serum folate more frequently showed the higher correlation with homocysteine, a sensitive marker of deficiency. Similarly, both serum and red cell folate were shown to increase in response to folic acid supplementation. However, serum folate generally gave the greater response and was able to distinguish different supplementation doses. The C677T polymorphism of methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase alters the distribution of folate forms in red cells and may thereby cause further analytical variability in routine red cell folate assays. Overall, serum folate is cheaper and faster to perform than red cell folate, is influenced by fewer analytical variables and provides an assessment of folate status that may be superior to red cell folate.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Chromatography, High Pressure Liquid
  • Dietary Supplements
  • Erythrocytes / metabolism*
  • Folic Acid / analysis*
  • Folic Acid / blood
  • Folic Acid / therapeutic use
  • Folic Acid Deficiency / blood*
  • Folic Acid Deficiency / drug therapy
  • Folic Acid Deficiency / pathology
  • Homocysteine / blood
  • Humans
  • Methylenetetrahydrofolate Reductase (NADPH2) / genetics
  • Methylenetetrahydrofolate Reductase (NADPH2) / metabolism
  • Polymorphism, Single Nucleotide
  • Tandem Mass Spectrometry


  • Homocysteine
  • Folic Acid
  • Methylenetetrahydrofolate Reductase (NADPH2)