Soon, tortillas may be a powerful tool for healthy babies. Beginning April 15, the FDA is allowing manufacturers to fortify their corn masa foods (which also include tacos and tamales) with folic acid, a synthetic form of vitamin B. Hispanic women have the highest rates of giving birth to babies whose brain or spinal cords are not fully formed, 30 to 40 percent higher than average. Folic acid helps prevent these types of birth defects.
Since 1998, the FDA has required that breads and other products made with enriched flour be fortified with folic acid. In the years since, the number of babies born in the U.S. with neural tube defects has dropped by roughly 35 percent — or about 1,300 babies a year. Latina babies, whose mothers tended to eat more tortillas and less bread, were missing out on the benefit.
In 2012, the March of Dimes Foundation, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Council of La Raza and the Spina Bifida Association petitioned the FDA to allow fortification. But until now, the government banned fortifying corn masa products, concerned that the folic acid would not remain stable.
"I think [the decision to allow fortification] will be really monumental for the Latino population," Michael Dunn, a Brigham Young University food scientist, told NPR. Dunn led a study that helped convince the FDA of the shelf stability of folic acid in fortified corn masa products.
A study released last year in Great Britain, however, questions the value, and potential negative health effects, of fortifying foods with synthetic folic acid. The researchers found that the body does not process the acid the same way it handles natural folate, leaving lots of it circulating in our bodies. They warned that more research is needed to understand the effects of that excess acid.