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FDA To Review Fortifying Corn Flour with Folic Acid to Prevent Birth Defects

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The lack of folic acid can lead to severe birth defects. There has been a rise is such defects in an ongoing cluster of cases in Washington state and other cases in the nation’s growing Hispanic population. In order to curtail it the federal Food and Drug Administration has agreed to review a long-delayed petition to fortify corn masa flour with folic acid, a move advocates say will be significant in preventing devastating birth defects associated with lack of folic acid in women of child bearing age.

The petition to fortify corn flour was co-sponsored by the officials with the March of Dimes in 2012. They have revealed that the FDA has received results of recent tests that validate the stability of the B vitamin when added to foods such as tortillas and corn chips.

Cynthia Pellegrini, March of Dimes senior vice president of public policy and government affairs, said in an email that they were pleased to have moved the process forward on our citizen petition to fortify corn masa flour with folic acid. She added that they along with their co-petitioners would work with the FDA on this critically important issue for mom and baby health, especially in Hispanic communities.

The required tests were conducted by Utah food scientists in June and only after that the agency considered the petition that would help in curtailing severe birth defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly, particularly in Hispanic communities.

Since 2010, there have been at least 40 cases of anencephaly in the three of Washington state counties – a condition in which babies develop in utero missing all or part of the brain and skull. The irony is state and federal health officials have found no cause for it and no way to halt the rare and fatal disorder.

It is known that adequate amount of folic acid is important for the proper formation of the neural tube, which creates the brain and spinal cord early in fetal development. In cases where the tube doesn’t close properly, it can lead to spina bifida, or, in extreme cases, anencephaly. The only way known to reduce or prevent such defects is through folic acid supplements and fortification of foods.

Since 1996, the cereal-grain products identified as enriched has been fortified with folic acid after an intervention from FDA. Since then the cases of neural-tube defects in the U.S. have lowered by 35 percent. As per an estimate, this fortification eliminated about 10,000 defects in a decade, thereby making it one of the top 10 public-health interventions of the 21st century’s first decade. However, at that time as corn flour was not as common in the U.S as it is now. So, this staple grain in the Hispanic Diet was overlooked and was not classified as an enriched grain.

The U.S. Hispanic population is on the rise now and a quarter of all U.S. babies are now born to Hispanic mothers. These babies have a 20 percent increased risk of neural-tube defects.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), by fortifying corn masa flour with folic acid, an average of 40 neural-tube defects a year in Hispanic women and perhaps as many as 120 nationwide could be prevented.

Michael Dunn, the Brigham Young University food scientist who led the study opined that the test results are positive and promising. He remarked that the folic acid remained quite stable in stored corn flour, baked tortillas and even in fried chips. While the new review is no guarantee of FDA approval, advocates opine that it’s a move long overdue.

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