In a consumer update released two days ago, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has suggested adding folic acid, a form of vitamin B, to  corn masa-based diet taken by Hispanic women during their pregnancies. The recommendation aims to alleviate the risk of birth defects such as neural birth defects (NADs), associated with folic acid deficiency.

FDA also claimed that most of the time, pregnant women fail to take enough folic acid through their diet. The agency has therefore requested product manufacturers to add up to 0.7 milligrams of folic acid in corn masa flour; an ingredient in foods including tacos, tortilla chips and tamales. Corn masa is richly consumed by American-Latinos. It is mandatory for pregnant woman to take the prescribed amount of folic acid doses to ensure the safety of their baby as well as their own.

Jonca Bull, MD, Director of the FDA’s Office of Minority Health believes that most Hispanic women are suffering from complications associated with low levels of folic acids since it is not the main ingredient of their staple diet, which is a corn masa-based diet. This is the reason why many newborns born to Hispanic women suffer from birth neural defects.

In 1998, in response to recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Public Health Service, the FDA took various steps to ensure availability of folic acid for women and kids. Folic acid was added to enriched rice, bread, flour and other enriched cereals such as cereals, macaroni and bread.  Ever since then the cases of birth neural defects among the US populations have declined but the ratio among Hispanic women has remained unaffected.

As a result, the FDA obtained a food additive petition from 5 different organizations – the March of Dimes Foundation, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Spina Bifida Association, the National Council of La Raza and the Gruma Corporation – demanding the addition of folic acid in corn masa flour products. The FDA has given manufacturers an option of voluntarily adding up to 0.7 milligrams per pound of corn masa flour in their products.

A Preventive Measure — To Avoid Birth Defects

Folic acid is a form of water- soluble B vitamin. It is naturally found in green leafy vegetables, beans, yeast, mushrooms, meat (such as kidney and liver), orange juice and tomato juice. During pregnancy, it helps in the development of a baby’s neural tube into his or her brain and spinal cord.

Neural tube defects start developing 18-30 days after conception. Taking folic acid before and after pregnancy, however, lessens the chances of developing neural tube defects. Folic acid also plays an important role in the production of red blood cells. The human body has a natural phenomenon of absorbing and transporting these vitamins.

It was critical that the FDA ensure the stability of folic acid in corn masa diets and to ensure that the folic acid fulfills its usefulness to all children and women, pregnant or not.

Therefore, the FDA, before granting an approval, confirmed and ensured that by doing so, no behavioral and structural abnormalities will be seen by the folic acid such as the production of any by-product. The FDA also ensured the safety of folic acid enriched-diets for all women, pregnant or not, and children of all ages.

Cynthia Pellegrini, Senior Vice President of Public Policy at the March of Dimes said: “In order to ensure the safety of folic acid in food, FDA worked with us to conduct a study, which presented remarkable outcomes, ensuring that the removal of birth defects disparities among the Hispanic community would soon vanish. We were thrilled to see and were confident about the whole plan to remove this illness from the Hispanic community.”

“It is a powerful and preventive step towards the public health,”- Bull says. “Addition of folic acid in corn masa diet will soon eradicate the risks associated with the occurrence of birth defects. By this mean, a huge number of US populations will be protected.”

The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that, in order to avoid birth defects, a women should consume 400 mcg of folic acid every day during her pregnancy period or a month before pregnancy.