Good news! The U.S. Food and Drug Administration now allows the addition of folic acid to corn masa flour. This kind of vitamin fortification has been done with many other types of cereals and flour since 1998, and has helped reduce the incidence of certain types of birth defects of the brain, spine, and spinal cord.
Corn masa flour is the type of corn meal used to make tortillas, taco shells, and tamales, among other foods. It is a household staple in many Hispanic homes around the country, but especially in the Southwest and along the border with Mexico. By adding folic acid to corn masa flour, the FDA is hoping to reduce the incidence of two serious birth defects, spina bifida and anencephaly.
Spina bifida occurs when the lower end of the spine has not formed properly around the spinal cord, and can lead to paralysis of the legs. In anencephaly, the brain has not formed properly and may be partially or completely absent, a condition that is almost always fatal. Both types of defects, which can vary in their severity, are also called neural tube defects. Neural tube defects occur very early in a pregnancy, before a woman even knows that she is pregnant.
Adding folic acid to these foods has been a resounding success in helping prevent neural tube defects. The addition of folic acid to such products as enriched breads, cereals, flours, pasta, and rice has cut the incidence of these birth defects by 35% since 1998. Put another way, more than 1,300 babies each year are being saved from having spines and brains that are not properly formed because folic acid is added to these foods.
Your body turns folic acid into folate, one of the B vitamins. Most people do not get enough folic acid or folate in their diets, which is why folic acid is added to grain and cereal products. Americans eat these products every day and they have become the most important dietary source of folic acid.
But Latina women are more likely to eat foods made from corn masa flour rather than the products fortified with folic acid, which means that the added folic acid was not reaching them, as Rita Rubin wrote in this blog last year. Neural tube defects are more common in babies born to Hispanic mothers. Babies born to Hispanic mothers had a rate of anencephaly that was four times the national average in 2014, she wrote.
In fact, the FDA banned adding folic acid to corn flour because of fears that the folic acid might not remain stable over the shelf life of the product. But Michael Dunn, a food scientist at Brigham Young University, performed a study that showed that adding folic acid to corn flour was safe.
Fortified corn masa flour should be on market shelves soon. You can check the ingredient list on package labels to see if folic acid is added.
The March of Dimes and the American Academy of Pediatrics were two of the organizations that petitioned the FDA to allow adding folic acid to corn flour.