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FDA weighs adding folic acid to corn masa to halt birth defects

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FDA weighs adding folic acid to corn masa to halt birth defects

Picture of JoNel  Aleccia
Brigham Young University professor Michael Dunn, left, works with Rancho Markets’ Jorge Morales to make tortillas fortified with folic acid in Provo, Utah. Dunn is conducting experiments that could lead the Food and Drug Administration to allow fortification of corn masa — a staple grain in Hispanic diets — with folic acid to prevent birth defects. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
The Seattle Times
Sunday, December 13, 2015

[Click here to read the Spanish version.] 

Amid an investigation into the cluster of birth defects in Central Washington, federal regulators soon will consider whether to allow folic acid to be added to corn masa, a move that might prevent the tragic neural-tube disorders seen there — and across the country.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has agreed to review a long-delayed petition by the March of Dimes, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other groups to allow voluntary fortification of the staple grain used to make food such as tortillas and tortilla chips.

Tests were conducted in June to review the stability of the B vitamin in uncooked corn masa and in cooked foods. The tests were the last step before the FDA would consider the petition, first submitted to the agency in 2012.

Proponents want folic acid added to the corn masa just as it has been required to be added to enriched wheat and white flours in the U.S. since 1996.

After that regulation took effect, cases of neural-tube defects in the U.S., including spina bifida and anencephaly, dropped 35 percent. Fortification eliminated 10,000 birth defects in the first decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Corn masa wasn’t included in the original mandate. Since then, the Hispanic population has surged. A quarter of all U.S. babies are now born to Hispanic mothers, who have a higher risk than white women of neural-tube defects. Fortifying corn masa could reduce defects in that population, too.

The FDA review is no guarantee of approval. Agency officials could ask for more time to consider the petition, or they could reject it. A response is expected by mid-January.

[This story was originally published by The Seattle Times.]

Photographs by Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times.