Research may finally convince the FDA to add folic acid to corn masa flour to lower incidence of birth defects in the Hispanic community!

Lynn Griffith
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America first began enriching flour during World War II after white bread was exposed as lacking nutrition. The government then added B vitamins, such as thiamin and niacin, to wheat flour. In 1998, the FDA made it mandatory to enrich flour with folic acid or vitamin B9. This decision has had an estimated impact of protecting approximately 1,300 babies per year from neural birth defects. But for hispanic women, this mandate is worthless. Many Hispanic women tend to use tortillas instead of bread. (1)

The CDC reports that Hispanic women have the highest risk of having a child with birth defects. The website also details that they have lower blood folate levels and are less likely to consume foods with folic acid. (2) The National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities has conducted a campaign to increase folic acid awareness among Hispanic women. (3)

CDC confirms that Hispanic women have lower blood folate levels and the highest risk of birth defects, yet the FDA is resistant to adding folic acid in corn masa flour!

Currently the FDA doesn’t even allow folic acid in corn masa flour. Three years ago, a coalition of groups petitioned the FDA to allow folic acid to be added to corn masa flour. Instead of granting the request, the FDA asked for more tests to be done! The scientists at Brigham Young University are currently finishing up these tests. (1)

It seems strange that one side of the government would acknowledge the problem, and another side needs to spend money on more tests to confirm the problem. The FDA is quick to tout the victory of placing folic acid in wheat flour; it seems bizarre that they would not want to extend that victory!(1)

The groups petitioning were not asking the FDA to do something unheard of; folic acid fortification of corn masa flour is standard in Latin American countries. The research that the FDA requested was to show that folic acid could be stable in alkaline corn masa flour over several months. The cost of this research would have cost $600,000 to $800,000.(1)

FDA ordered tests that would cost between $600,000 and $800,000, but food scientist Michael Dunn joined the team and convinced FDA to scale down the tests in order to make it more affordable!

Michael Dunn, Brigham Young University food scientist, got on board. He had extensive experience working on fortifying tortillas in Mexico. His involvement persuaded the FDA to scale down their tests to a more affordable range.(1)

The tests are going well. The group took their fortified dough into an industrial kitchen, and expected to see the levels of folic acid drop after the cold dough was placed into a fryer. The research team was pleasantly surprised that they did not see this loss.(1)

Tests are showing positive results and folic acid is withstanding fryer heat, yet it will be several more months before FDA makes final decision on something that is already being done in Latin America!

Unfortunately, it will be several more months after the FDA gets the information to make a final decision.(1)

Recently, Michael Pollan pointed out the absurdity of stripping grains of their nutrition to make flour, and then adding synthetic vitamins back in.(1)  Do these vitamins really make a difference?  With sufficient education about the topic and enough income to make higher quality purchases, it is likely that a large portion of the population would make better choices.  But for some, both education and income could be a barrier.  The FDA agreeing to do something may be better than doing nothing, especially if it can improve the life of a child!

Sources for this article include:
(1) www.wired.com
(2) www.cdc.gov
(3) www.cdc.gov

Image attributions:
 "Mexican tortilla" by David Boté Estrada (Featured Image)
Licensed under CC BY 4.0, images may have been modified in some way

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