Adding Folate to Tortilla Flour Might Cut Birth Defects Among Hispanics

THURSDAY June 16, 2011 -- To reduce neural tube defects among the U.S. Hispanic population, fortify the corn flour used to make tortillas with folic acid, experts suggest.

In 1998, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring that cereal grains used in bread and pasta be fortified with the B vitamin folic acid. Experts credit that requirement with reducing the rate of neural tube defects, or birth defects involving the brain and spine, by about 30 percent in the ensuing years, according to a news release from the March of Dimes.

Still, about 3,000 pregnancies in the United States are affected by neural tube defects each year, and the rate among Hispanics remains 20 percent higher than for non-Hispanic white women.

One way of combating this would be to add folic acid to the corn masa flour used to make products common in the Hispanic diet, such as corn tortillas and tamales, according to a commentary from the March of Dimes, published in the June 16 online edition of the American Journal of Public Health.

"Fortification of cereal grains with folic acid in 1998 is a public health success story. Adding this B vitamin to corn masa flour will build on that initiative and begin to address the disparities in these birth defects," said lead author Dr. Alan R. Fleischman, March of Dimes medical director.

"Despite the fact that fortification has given thousands of babies a healthy start in life, it is imperative we address this serious health problem in the Hispanic community. Public health officials and businesses must work together to expand the success of folic acid fortification to corn masa and to the Hispanic community in the U.S.," he added.

Neural tube defects include spina bifida (a spinal-cord malformation that can cause paralysis and lifelong disability) and anencephaly (a lethal condition in which the brain and skull don't develop).

Many countries in Latin America, including Chile, Costa Rica and Mexico, already fortify their food products with folic acid. In the United States, FDA approval would be required for the government to target the Hispanic population and also fortify corn masa flour with folic acid.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides more information on the benefits of taking folic acid.

Posted: June 2011


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