Adding folic acid to corn flour could cut birth defects

By Tom Nordlie • Published: December 28th, 2011
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

One of the loftiest goals in medicine is to find simple solutions to serious problems.

Case in point — the B-vitamin called folic acid. When pregnant women get enough, their babies have a 70 percent lower risk of developing neural tube defects. These are malformations of the tissue that eventually becomes the brain and spinal cord.

The best-known example is spina bifida, a condition where part of the baby’s spinal cord is exposed.

Neural tube defects occur in about 3,000 U.S. pregnancies each year. To address the problem, U.S. law requires many fortified grain products to contain extra folic acid.

That’s a great idea. But Hispanic women may not be benefiting enough. Their babies have a higher incidence of neural tube defects than babies in other ethnic groups.

A commentary published in the American Journal of Public Health suggests a simple way to help — adding folic acid to the corn flour called masa harina [MAH-sah ah-REE-nah]. In Latin American cultures, masa harina is used in tortillas, tamales and many other foods.

Previous research shows that compared with Caucasian or African-American women, Mexican-American women are more likely to consume the flour. In Mexico and some Central American countries, masa harina is already fortified with folic acid.

There hasn’t been much research on the results of this practice. Nonetheless, the study’s authors say that fortifying masa harina in the U.S. would make a difference. So they call upon food industry leaders, health care professionals and consumer advocacy groups to push for progress.

Meanwhile, if you often cook with masa harina, it might be worth taking a folic acid supplement.

It may not be as delicious as a fresh tortilla. But it’s a simple solution to a serious problem.