Folic Acid and How It Might Prevent Birth Defects

Latina’s who are pregnant may be missing a key ingredient in their diet that is believed to play a role in preventing certain birth defects.

The ingredient in question folic acid, which has been used for some time in the fortification and strengthening of several enriched grains.

Jonca Bull, M.D., director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Office of Minority Health believes that Hispanic women do not get the folic acid they need from cereal grains, as those are not usually part of their diet. Hispanic women generally lean more towards corn masa-based foods in their diet.

This may explain why among US women, it is Latinas who are most at risk of giving birth to children with neural tube defects (NTD’s). This information comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who explain NTD birth defects as those that affect the brain, spine, and spinal cord. These include anencephaly and spina bifida.

The FDA are going out of their way to help Latinas and their children by approving the addition of folic acid to corn masa flour. This is the type of flour commonly found in foods like tortilla chips, tacos, tamales, and tortillas, which are considered staple foods of the Hispanic population.

Women who consume folic acid, which is a B vitamin, before and during pregnancy may reduce their risk of neural tube defects.

Masa, which is the Spanish word for flour, is created by cooking corn in a bitter tasting alkali and the grinding it down into flour.

The Importance of Prevention

Back in 1988, the CDC and the U.S. Public Health Service recommended that pregnant women get more folic acid, and the FDA listened. The FDA required folic acid to be added to standardized enriched cereal grains, such as rice and flour. They also required that it be added to standardized enriched cereal grain products like enriched bread and macaroni.

The addition to B vitamins to refined grains after processing makes them more enriched. Standardized foods must contain FDA approved ingredients, and they are produced in very specific ways.

A total of 5 organizations – the March of Dimes Foundation, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Spina Bifida Association, the National Council of La Raza, and Gruma Corporation – created a petition that asked the FDA to review and approve folic acid as an additive to corn masa flour. That petition was granted, and now manufacturers voluntarily add as much as 0.7 mg of folic acid per pound of corn masa flour, which is about the same as the levels found in enriched cereal grains since 1998

Safety First

Before the FDA granted an approval, they first had to ascertain whether or not it was safe to add folic acid to corn masa flour. This was not just a safety measure for expectant Latina women, but for anyone, regardless of age, sex, or ethnicity, who would be consuming products made using corn masa flour. Once the research was complete, the FDA found that the addition of folic acid to the food supply was indeed safe for everyone.

Keefe explained the process the FDA went through to approve the addition of folic acid, which includes that it was safe to consume in masa corn flour and that it remained stable and did not break down during manufacturing.