How Tortillas Might Get Healthier

Folic acid in tortillas could help prevent birth disorders in some children

The addition of folic acid (vitamin B-9) to enriched flour has been required in the US since 1998, but an important demographic may be missing out.

Hispanic women who eat more tortillas than bread may not be getting enough of the vitamin. Those women give birth to babies with underformed brains or spinal cords 30 to 40 percent more often than average, according to Wired. Folic acid is thought to help prevent certain kinds of birth disorders, including fatal anencephaly and very serious spina bifida.

A coalition of six organizations petitioned the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2012, noting that "Hispanic women are about 20 percent more likely to have a child with a neural tube defect (NTD)," and arguing that folic acid should be allowed — if not required — to be added to the widely consumed corn masa flour.

Spina Bifida Association CEO and President Cindy Brownstein represents one of the petitioning organizations.

"This is an important moment in the history of fortification," Brownstein explained at the time. "If fortification of corn masa can be achieved, lives will be saved and families spared a lifetime of struggling to ensure the complicated health and social needs of their loved ones are met. We are grateful to our colleagues who have participated in this important endeavor and look forward to an outcome that will truly make a difference in the lives of many."

Now the FDA is taking the proposal seriously. The agency requested a study that demonstrated whether folic acid would remain stable over time when added to corn masa flour. Tests have been largely successful, Wired reports, so a central obstacle might have been cleared. Fortified tortillas may only be a matter of time.

"This is the staple of the Latino diet," said March of Dimes Chief Medical Officer Edward McCabe, per Wired. "That population deserves to have the protection given their babies are at the highest risk."

Folic acid won't entirely eliminate birth defects, but evidence suggests it may make a real difference. National Council of La Raza President and CEO Janet Murguia, whose organization joined the petition, made a persuasive case at the time.

"Fortifying corn masa flour with folic acid is a simple but highly effective step in protecting the health of Hispanic children in this country," she said in 2012, per a March of Dimes press release. "This is a proven technique that has already lowered the rates of birth defects in most groups of babies, and adding folic acid to the food products that are staples within Latino diets would specifically address the substantially higher rates of birth defects that our community faces."