HEALTH

Tortillas and other corn flour products will include folic acid to prevent birth defects

AURORA, CO - DECEMBER 01:  An immigrant from Mexico holds his son during a newborn care class at a community health center for low-income patients on December 1, 2009 in Aurora, Colorado. The Metro Community Provider Network (MCPN), which has 11 health centers in the Denver area, has seen a 138 percent increase in patients during the last year of recession. Community health centers such as MCPN could play a major role nationally if health care reform is passed, with increased subsidies from the federal government as well as millions of newly-insured low-income citizens seeking care. Health coverage for immigrants remains a contentious issue in the reform debate. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

AURORA, CO - DECEMBER 01: An immigrant from Mexico holds his son during a newborn care class at a community health center for low-income patients on December 1, 2009 in Aurora, Colorado. The Metro Community Provider Network (MCPN), which has 11 health centers in the Denver area, has seen a 138 percent increase in patients during the last year of recession. Community health centers such as MCPN could play a major role nationally if health care reform is passed, with increased subsidies from the federal government as well as millions of newly-insured low-income citizens seeking care. Health coverage for immigrants remains a contentious issue in the reform debate. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)  (2009 Getty Images)

Taking action on a long-delayed petition, the Food and Drug Administration has moved to add folic acid to corn masa flour in the hopes of preventing birth defects — affecting primarily Latino infants.

Folic acid is a synthetic form of folate, a B vitamin, a staple added to most grain products in the U.S. for years.

A quarter of all babies born to Hispanic mothers have a 20 percent higher risk of neural-tube defects than white women, and researchers have linked the lack of folic acid in the diet of expecting mothers. 

Two years ago, March of Dimes published a report shedding light on the issue and urged the FDA to make the change.

With the FDA's new action, the vitamin will be allowed at a level no higher than 0.7 milligrams per pound of corn masa flour — similar to the allowable amount in other grains.

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Starting in 1998, the FDA mandated that pasta, bread, cereals and other various grains be made with enriched flour, fortified with folic acid. In the years since, the number of babies born with neural tube defects in the U.S. has dropped by 35 percent – about 1,300 babies every year.

Advocates for the move praised the agency’s decision.

After four years in the making, groups such as The March of Dimes Foundation, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Council of La Raza and the Spina Bifida Association, began petitioning the FDA in 2012 to allow folic acid in products made with corn masa flour.

Corn masa wasn’t included in the FDA's initial directive in the 1990s because it wasn’t as popular as it is now in foods such as corn chips, tamales and tortillas — mostly Latin American foods. 

The U.S. Latino population has surged to more than 55 million people since the 1990s.

Additionally, the FDA had concerns about the viability of folic acid in corn masa flour once it was cooked, and the length of its shelf life. 

Another factor possibly affecting the frequency of the birth defects may be the unlikeliness of Hispanic women taking multivitamin containing folic acid before and during pregnancy.

Nutrition, dietetics and food scientist Michael Dunn, of Brigham Young University, led a study that helped change the FDA’s mind about the stability of folic acid in corn masa flour.

His research team found that the heat and production process does not alter the quantity of folic acid in a fortified product via its shelf life.

According to NPR, Gruma Corp., a Mexico-based company and one of the largest manufacturers of products containing corn masa four, said it expects to have its fortified products on the U.S. market by the end of September.

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