FDA to Permit Folic Acid in Corn Masa to Prevent Birth Defects

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It's been almost 20 years since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required that folic acid, a B vitamin that can prevent a serious birth defect when taken by pregnant women, be added to certain enriched grains like breads and pasta. In the decade after, the rate of these neural tube defects plummeted and is estimated to have prevented 10,000 cases in a decade.

But corn masa was not included in the FDA's recommendation back in the '90s, and since then the Hispanic population of the U.S. has grown dramatically. Now a quarter of all babies are born to Hispanic mothers, and they have a much higher risk of neural tube defects than their white counterparts.

On Thursday, the FDA announced that folic acid may be added to corn masa flour, a staple for many Hispanic families, with a goal of reducing the risk of neural tube defects.

Advocacy groups, including the March of Dimes, have been lobbying the FDA for years to make the recommendation. They applauded the move.

In a statement, March of Dimes president Dr. Jennifer Howse called the announcement a "major victory for maternal and child health, especially in our Hispanic communities."

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In a developing fetus, the neural tube starts as a flat ribbon and develops into a tube by the end of the first month of pregnancy. The tube goes on to develop into the brain and spinal cord. Serious defects can happen if the tube does not close completely. That can lead to conditions such as spina bifida.

But if a woman consumes appropriate amounts of folic acid -- 400 micrograms a day --  before becoming pregnant, it can prevent many cases of neural tube defects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most multivitamins contain the recommended amount of folic acid, and many fortified cereals -- now soon to include masa flour -- also can provide the amount of folic acid women need each day.

The only question is if the FDA delayed in making the recommendation, reports the Seattle Times:

Adding folic acid to corn masa could prevent an average of 40 neural-tube defects in Hispanic women each year, and as many as 120 annually across the nation, according to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Critics, including a former director of the CDC’s birth-defects division, said about 800 defects could have been prevented if the action had been taken earlier.

“That’s great news,” said Dr. Godfrey Oakley, director of the Center for Spina Bifida Research, Prevention and Policy at Emory University. “It’s only about 20 years too late.”

Susan Mayne [director of the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition], said the agency was required to follow the rules governing additives in the food supply.

“The big hitch, obviously, is that we need data,” she said. “Once we had the data, the process went very quickly.”

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The Times also reported that Gruma, the world's largest maker of corn masa flour already adds folic acid to masa flour in other countries, and will begin adding the vitamin to its U.S. products as soon as manufacturing plants can be reconfigured.

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