Higher Intake of This Nutrient May Lower Violent Crime Rates, Says New Study

Updated: Apr. 11, 2024

It's often associated with pregnancy and a baby's healthy-growing brain. Now, new research suggests it may have a nurturing effect on larger society.

If you spend time around the Internet, social media, the news or true crime podcasts, this may come as a surprise—but some statistics show that violent crime has dropped over recent decades in the U.S. For example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has reported that homicides have largely trended downward from 1991, when they peaked around 1.1 million nationally, to around 450,000 cases in 2014. The FBI also shared data suggesting that violent crimes in general followed a similar pattern.

Interestingly, a team of medical and criminal justice researchers is highlighting another phenomenon that has coincided with these rates. The effect that they found may have something to do with the American diet.

To start, in 2024 it’s more widely understood than it’s been in the past that food affects overall wellness, including psychological aspects of mood like happiness, depression and agitation. In fact, some foods are so essential for brain and nervous system function that they’re recommended even before birth.

Folate is a big one. Many obstetrics doctors instruct their pregnant patients to eat or supplement with plenty of folate, also known as vitamin B6. Past research has demonstrated that folate supplementation can have profound effects on fetal development and can help prevent severe neural tube birth defects, like spina bifida.

Now a study led by U.S. and Australian medical and criminal justice researchers has picked up on a potential connection between violent crime rates and levels of folate consumption among the population. A study published in the journal Nutrients on April 6, 2024, notes how the 30% decrease in violent crime between 1991 and 2001 happened along a similar timeline that the U.S. government mandated that U.S. diet staples like rice, bread, pasta, and cereal should be fortified with folic acid. (In the 1940s, B vitamins thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin were added to grain products to combat deficiencies.)

Analyzing national data, the team also noted a “significant” increase in blood levels of folic acid during the same period. They conclude that this sudden and substantial rise in tissue folate levels might have contributed to reducing violent crime in the United States, due to folate’s role in synthesizing serotonin—one of the main “happiness” hormones that’s demonstrated to stabilize the mood.

7 Top Foods High in Folic Acid and Folate

It’s a positive takeaway, but the researchers caution that this association does not necessarily imply that folate was solely responsible for the decline in crime. Factors like economic conditions, changes in law enforcement practices and drug legislation could have contributed to the improvements, especially in the 1990s. “It is understood that violent/non-violent suicide and homicide are complex subjects, and rates of both can be influenced by many environmental and socioeconomic factors, regardless of optimal folic acid intakes,” the researchers add.

While folate cannot definitively be linked to crime rates, it does exhibit a documented association with depression in other studies. In one from the journal Nutrients published in 2023, researchers suggest folate can be a powerful adjunct treatment to medication for people with depression. “Low folate levels are common among individuals with depression, influenced by various factors such as lifestyle, medications, and genetic predisposition. But even individuals with normal folate levels may still experience benefits from folic acid or L-methylfolate supplementation,” conclude researchers from that paper. 

If you find yourself feeling down or experiencing mental health issues, know that the national crisis hotline is available when you dial 988. It’s also advisable to discuss your dietary habits with your healthcare provider to determine if supplementation is appropriate for you. Individuals who are not pregnant require 400 micrograms (mcg) of folate per day, obtainable through fortified foods or naturally rich sources such as beans, dark leafy greens, and orange juice.

If you are pregnant or planning to conceive, it is essential to consult your licensed healthcare provider regarding your nutritional requirements.