Choline and betaine – water soluble nutrients

Choline is a newer discovery in the nutrient world. It is considered to be a member of the water soluble B vitamins group which are nutrients involved in metabolism – the use of energy within the body. We can produce small amounts of choline so it isn’t considered a vitamin but as we can not produce enough for health it is considered an essential nutrient. (1) Betaine is a slightly different form of choline. Choline is found throughout the body but is particularly important within the brain and is needed for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Betaine is a metabolite of choline.

Choline, a water soluble nutrient. Foods Sources and symptoms of deficiency.

Choline is most typically found within phospholipids (such as phosphatidylcholine) which are important in membranes and as messenger chemicals within the brain and in the immune system. It may play a role in prenatal brain development but research on supplementation within pregnancy r to protect cognitive skills in the elderly is still in early stages. (1)

Choline is a  methyl donor (1) which means it can share a methyl group – essentially one carbon atom with three hydrogen atoms with an overall neutral charge.

An important role of methyl groups is in the release of energy from sugar within mitochondria. The methyl group is passed back and forth between nutrients and enzymes that are involved in breaking down a molecule of fat or sugar for use of the stored energy that is released when a double bond is broken. The methyl group is combined with an acetyl group when it is removed from the area on the chain of carbon molecules when a double bond is broken. An acetyl group is an atom of carbon combined with one atom of hydrogen and the group has a negative charge. The process for breaking down the glucose sugar molecule is called the Krebs cycle and most beginning level organic chemistry or nutrition students will remember having to memorize all of the steps involved. My summary may be inaccurate – college was a long time ago – the important point is that B vitamins and methyl donors are needed for mitochondria to be able to release energy from glucose/sugar molecules).

  • (The Krebs cycle is also known as the “citric acid cycle or the tricarboxylic acid (TCAcycle.” More info: Krebs cycle.)

Methyl groups are also important in controlling gene activity. They act like an on/off switch for genes. A gene that is fully methylated – all the available double bonds between carbon atoms are broken into single bonds with a methyl group added instead – is in the off position, the protein that the gene would encode is not being made. Genes that are unmethylated have double bonds and are in the on position, the pattern for assembling amino acids into a protein can be read by a matching strand of RNA and the protein can be formed (generally in the endoplasmic reticulum or Golgi apparatus areas of a cell).

Betaine and the more familiar B vitamins folate (B9 if anyone is counting), B6 and B12 are also methyl donors. Folate deficiency has been associated with less gene methylation (a histone is part of a gene). (2) More about methyl donors as a group is available here:  Methyl Donors and BPA.

  • The number system for naming B vitamins was derived at an earlier stage of research and some of the chemicals that were given numbers at the time were discovered to not be essential nutrients – meaning the body was able to form them within the normal health and didn’t essentially need to have them included in the diet (so that is why we don’t hear about a B4, B8, B10 or B11).

Excessive intake of choline above 7500 milligrams may cause a drop in blood pressure, sweating, vomiting and digestive upset, and change in body odor. The recommended Upper Limit is 3,500 mg/day. It would be difficult to reach that amount with food sources. (Safety information,

Food Sources of Choline:

Good sources of choline include meats, fish & shellfish, eggs/egg yolks, cheese, milk, yogurt, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi and other cruciferous vegetables, green leafy vegetables, pomegranate seeds, sesame seeds, tahini, peanuts,  soybeans, beans, brown rice, whole grains.

Food Sources of Betaine:

Sweet potatoes, meats, cheese, beets, basil, spinach, green leafy vegetables, brown rice, whole grains.

Disclaimer: Opinions are my own and the information is provided for educational purposes within the guidelines of fair use. While I am a Registered Dietitian this information is not intended to provide individual health guidance. Please see a health professional for individual health care purposes.


  1. Choline, Linus Pauling Institute, Oregon State University,
  2. Benjamin A. Garcia, Zigmund Luka, Lioudmila V. Loukachevitch, Natarajan V. Bhanu, Conrad Wagner, Folate deficiency affects histone methylation,

    Medical Hypotheses, Volume 88, March 2016, Pages 63-67, ScienceDirect,

  3. Foods used in the 30% Calories from Carbohydrates Menu Plans,

Elevated levels of BPA found in children with autism

Recently published research has found that children with autism had elevated levels of the plastic bisphenol A (BPA) compared to the children in the control group. [1] BPA is a contaminant in the food supply from its use in the plastic lining of cans and in other food packages such as plastic drink bottles. It may also be found on the slick surface coating of some types of register receipts.

This is a significant step compared to “we don’t know what causes it or how to stop it,” because BPA is something that could be avoided by prenatal women and people with autism. It is also good news because it may also be possible to reduce the risks of exposure to BPA by increasing intake of the plant phytoestrogen, soy genistein, or methyl donors such as vitamin B12 and folate and choline. [2]

/Disclosure: This information is provided for educational purposes and is not intended to provide individual health guidance. Please see a health professional for individual health care purposes./

Methyl Donors and BPA

Methyl donors are chemicals that can donate a methyl group which is made up of one carbon atom and three hydrogen atoms. Methyl groups on DNA signal the genes to remain unactivated, to stay in an off position. Removing the methyl groups can signal the gene to become active. A gene that has few methyl groups atttached may be more easily activated than normally.

This excerpt includes methyl donors and at least one methyl remove-er (BPA).

“Nutritional components that may influence the methylation of epigenetically susceptible loci include folic acid, vitamin B6 and 12, selenium, choline and betaine, methionine, soy genistein, bisphenol A, tocopherols, diallyl disulfide in garlic, and tea polyphenols [28]” [1]                                               *tocopherols are the vitamin E group.

Bisphenol A is not a natural component of food as I understand nutrition but BPA may be part of the plastic lining of cans and other food packages such as plastic drink bottles. It is also found on the slick coating of some types of register receipts. BPA may cause hypomethylation of DNA, fewer methyl groups on the DNA may cause activation of genes.

Bisphenyl A can act similarly to the hormone estrogen. Soy genistein is a phytoestrogen that may help block harmful effects of the estrogen mimetics. Other methyl donors that may help block the effects of BPA are the B vitamins folic acid, vitamin B6 and B12 and choline and betaine.

Avoiding the supplement forms and eating more food sources of Folate and methyl B12 may be more beneficial for people with defects in the methylation cycle.(MTHFR is one example). Taking the unmethylated supplement forms may interfere with the smaller quantities of bioactive folate and B12 that might be found in natural sources.

Adequate B vitamins prenatally may also help protect against DNA changes in the infant.

Folate or Folic Acid:

Folate is the form of the vitamin found in food and it is more bioactive than Folic acid. Folic acid is the form that is commonly available as a supplement and in fortified foods however it requires adequate supplies of vitamin B12 to be available in order to be converted into a more usable form. A genetic difference may exist in some individuals that prevent the body from being able to convert the inactive Folic acid form into Folate, the methylated bioactive form of the vitamin.

Food Sources of Folate, the bioactive natural form, include: most beans and peanuts, black eyed peas, green peas, grains, asparagus, most dark green vegetables, orange juice, citrus fruits. Fortified cereal and rice are good sources of folic acid, the supplemental form.

Vitamin B12:

Food Sources of Vitamin B12 include: shellfish, fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk, cheese, dairy products, Nutritional or Brewer’s yeast. Vegetarians who don’t eat dairy, eggs, fish or other meat products may need a supplement or nutritional yeast, a vegan food source of vitamin B12.

Injections of B12 may be needed for better absorption of the nutrient for some individuals with stomach problems. Adequate stomach acid and a cofactor are required for normal absorption of vitamin B12. A genetic difference may be a problem for some people causing them to need the methylated active form of B12 rather than being able to benefit from the more commonly available unmethylated supplement.

Vitamin B6:

Food Sources of Vitamin B6 include: fortified cereal, barley, buckwheat, avocados, baked potato with the skin, beef, poultry, salmon, bananas, green leafy vegetables, beans, nuts, sunflower seeds.

Choline and Betaine:

Choline is also a water soluble essential nutrient that is frequently grouped with the rest of the B vitamins. Choline is found throughout the body but is particularly important within the brain. Choline as a high dose supplement may cause mood symptoms in people at risk for unstable moods. It is a precursor for the brain neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Betaine is a metabolite of choline. Spinach and beets are rich in betaine. Good sources of choline include egg yolks, soy beans, beef, poultry, seafood, green leafy vegetables and cauliflower.

/Disclosure: This information is provided for educational purposes and is not intended to provide individual health guidance. Please see a health professional for individual health care purposes./

  1. Kyung E. Rhee, et al., Early Determinants of Obesity: Genetic, Epigenetic, and In Utero Influences, International Journal of Pediatrics, Vol. 2012
  2. J. Higdon & V. Drake,  An Evidence-based Approach to Vitamins and Minerals:  Health Benefits and Intake Recommendations, 2nd Ed., (Thieme, Stuttgart / New York, 2012)
  3. “Choline” on []
  4. Betaine,” (Feb. 11, 2012) PubMed Health: []  *link not working, part of the information is available here: []
  5. Rebecca J. Schmidt, et. al. , “Prenatal vitamins, one-carbon metabolism gene variants, and risk for autism,” Epidemiology. 2011 Jul; 22(4): 476–485. []
  6. MTHFR C677T Mutation: Basic Protocol,”