Just yesterday, April 14th, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the fortification of corn masa foods with folic acid. Folic acid is a water-soluble B vitamin, and is therefore also named vitamin B9. It is a synthetic form of folate. The reason as to why it is such an important addition to flour is because of folate’s (and therefore folic acid’s) health benefits. Folic acid is used to prevent heart disease, strokes, and certain types of cancers, such as colon and cervical cancer. It also has applications in treating memory loss, osteoporosis, nerve pain, and many more illnesses. More importantly, folic acid is a vitamin that has the power of preventing severe birth defects of the brain and spinal cord, which are also known as neural tube defects.
Foods that are high in folate include leafy vegetables, certain fruits, beans, mushrooms, and certain meats. The FDA has actually approved and required that foods such as breads, pasta, cereals, and other grains to be made with flour that is fortified with folic acid since 1998. Since then, the number of children born with neural tube defects, such as spina bifida and anencephaly, has dropped about 35%, an astounding fact.
Foods made with corn masa like tortillas will now be joining the group of foods that are helping prevent severe defects, ultimately causing a positive impact in the lives of many unborn children. It is expected that this will have a large positive effect in the Latino community. Leaving aside the racial and cultural stereotypes, tortillas are an essential part of a meal for many Hispanic families. I, coming from a humble Mexican family, can attest that claim.
Currently, “Hispanic women are 20 percent more likely to have a baby with a neural tube defect than non-Hispanic white women”. While many other factors contribute to this statistic, the diet of the mothers is a very important factor to take into account. Hopefully with the fortification of corn masa, this statistic will change, and thus more neural tube defects.
Ultimately, this is an example of how manipulating food can have positive effects. Food modification is a very controversial and ethical issue that is present in today’s society, but this is an example of an acceptable practice. Food fortification is in no way related to the genetic modification of foods. It has been a safe way to improve public health through improving the nutritional content of food for roughly one hundred years. Only time will tell what other benefits, or detriments, science will provide to the food world. In the meantime, we can enjoy more visits to the local taco truck!