April 14, 2016

Following approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), food makers can now add folic acid to corn masa flour, which is often used in Latin American cooking.

Folate, or its synthetic form, folic acid, is a necessary vitamin that when taken by pregnant women helps to prevent neural tube defects in unborn children. These birth defects affect the brain, spine, and spinal cord. The inclusion of this vitamin in corn masa flour may help increase the folic acid intake in pregnant Latin American women.

Manufacturers can voluntarily add up to 0.7 milligrams of folic acid per pound of corn masa flour, which is consistent with levels of other enriched cereal grains.

Folic acid is an optional ingredient in certain cereals and infant formulas, but must be added to certain enriched grains and grain products like breads, rolls, noodles and pasta. The March of Dimes Foundation, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and other organizations in 2012 submitted to the FDA a food additive petition to extend voluntary fortification to corn masa flour for women who use this flour as a diet staple.

Corn masa flour is made by cooking corn in alkali and then grinding it. It's a staple food for many Latin Americans and is used to make foods like tortillas, tortilla chips, tamales, taco shells, and corn chips.

In a release, FDA's Susan Mayne said that adding folic acid to enriched flour has been helpful in reducing the incidence of neural tube defects in the general population. "Our analysis shows that adding folic acid to corn masa flour will help increase the consumption of folic acid by women who consume this flour as a staple in their diet," she said.

The petitioners also believe that this increased consumption of folic acid will reduce the risk of births with neural tube defects among Latina women. The FDA's approval, however, is just based on data showing that adding folic acid is safe and not the possibility of reduced risk of birth defects.

Manufacturers can begin adding folic acid this week and are required to list the ingredient on the packaging label.

For more information on folic acid and pregnancy, visit the March of Dimes website.