Masa Flour Safety: The FDA Takes Steps to Keep Hispanic Babies Healthy

. October 1, 2016.

In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month we are highlighting a major victory for America’s mothers and babies. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) announced earlier this year that it will allow corn masa flour to be fortified with folic acid. This change is an exciting recognition of the more than 20 years of work by the March of Dimes and other organizations to prevent serious birth defects of the brain and spine known as neural tube defects (NTDs).

Folic acid fortification saves babies every year

Folic acid is critical for healthy neurological development in babies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates folic acid fortification in the U.S. has saved about 1,300 babies each year from fatal or devastating birth defects. The body’s neural tube closes early in embryonic development, often before a woman knows she’s pregnant; and up to 50 percent of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned. On top of that, national surveys by the Gallup Organization show that only about one-third of women were actually taking a daily multivitamin with folic acid beginning before pregnancy as advised.

In 1998, folic acid began to be included in all enriched grain products as required by the FDA. Since then, the CDC was able to demonstrate that fortification had decreased NTDs by about 27 percent. But Hispanic babies were still much more likely to be affected by an NTD. Many health experts believed this was because corn masa flour, which is used in foods commonly consumed in the Hispanic community such as tortillas, was not required to be fortified with folic acid.

Journey to fortify corn masa flour

The March of Dimes and their partners, including the Gruma Corporation which makes Mission brand products, wanted to change this so they filed a petition to the FDA. Due to concerns about how adding folic acid might affect corn masa flour the FDA requested additional information on shelf
stability. Unfortunately, that information wasn’t already available. So, the March of Dimes funded a study and submitted the results to the FDA in October 2015. Cynthia Pellegrini, senior vice president of public policy at the March of Dimes said, “[The] FDA worked closely with us to design a study that garnered the information needed to establish the safety of this action. We’re thrilled at the outcome and feel confident that it will address the disparities we’ve seen in the Latino community and will give even more babies a healthy start in life.”

Check the label

After reviewing the research submitted by the March of Dimes coalition, the FDA announced earlier this year that staple foods like tortillas, tamales, pupusas, chips and taco shells will be fortified with folic acid. This is great news for parents and babies! Companies like Gruma Corporation have said that their folic acid fortified tortillas, chips, etc. will hit shelves this fall. So, the next time you are at the store be sure to check the label on your tortillas to see if they have been fortified with folic acid.