Latinas stand to benefit if the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) changes its guidelines to allow manufacturers to enrich corn flour—a major dietary staple in the Latino community—with folic acid, according to a WNYC report.
The FDA policy on folate enrichment has come under discussion as a result of a petition started by the March of Dimes and other groups. The petition seeks only to allow manufacturers to add the vitamin—it does not require them to do so.
Folic acid, or folate, is a B-complex vitamin that reduces the chances of neural tube defects—a form of birth defect affecting the brain or spinal cord. These include spina bifida, which can cause permanent long-term health problems such as paralysis, and anencephaly, a largely fatal disorder in which the brain and skull don’t develop properly. Neural tube defects have dropped from 4,500 a year to 3,000 a year since 1998, when FDA regulations mandating the addition of folate to many grain products, such as wheat flour, took effect. However, manufacturers aren’t required to add folate to masa corn flour—the primary ingredient in native Latino fare such as tortillas and tamales—which means that pregnant Latinas may not be getting the folate they need for their children’s health.
Folate can also be obtained from vitamins, but it’s needed during the first few weeks of pregnancy to avoid birth defects, and mothers often don’t know they’re pregnant until after that window has closed.
“Some people think, ’When I get pregnant, I’ll change all my behaviors—I’ll stop drinking, I’ll stop smoking, I’ll start taking my vitamin,’” said Siobhan Dolan, MD, MPH, an obstetrician and geneticist at New York City’s Montefiore Hospital. “The truth is that those interventions are most effective if they’re undertaken before you get pregnant, so we need to keep backing up the messages for women.”