Fresno lawmaker wants to fortify tortillas with folic acid to help Latino babies | Opinion

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More than 25 years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration required the makers of breads, cereals, pasta and rice products to fortify their goods with folic acid, a type of B vitamin.

The reason was simple: Folic acid is critical to the healthy formation of the brain and spinal cord in babies developing in the womb.

But left out of the mandate was masa, a type of ground corn that is a staple of Latinos. Masa is used to make tortillas, for example.

As a result, Latino communities are at a higher risk than others for having babies born with partially developed brains or skulls, which is usually fatal, or spina bifida, an opening along the spine that can cause paralysis.

Now a Fresno Democratic lawmaker wants to require that masa also be fortified with folic acid.


Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula is sponsoring AB 1830, and fellow San Joaquin Valley lawmakers should lend their backing to ensure this common-sense measure gets approved.

Threat of defects to babies

The kind of problems created by a lack of folic acid are known as neural tube defects. After the FDA passed its regulation in 1998, the occurrence of such defects declined by 35%, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.

But masa was left out of the regulated products. The FDA attempted a remedy in 2016 when it approved voluntary folic-acid fortification in corn masa flour. But Arambula notes that because the policy is voluntary, only 10% of masa products get fortified.

A fact sheet by Arambula says that neural tube defects occur early in fetal development. So even if a pregnant woman starts taking prenatal vitamins after getting pregnant, it may be too late to head off defects.

“Mandatory fortification of masa will right this wrong and prevent new mothers and parents from losing children to NTDs,” Arambula, an emergency room physician, says in the fact sheet.

Daily consumption of folic acid decreases the risk of neural tube defects by half.

“Food is the best way that we can get folic acid into our communities before they’re pregnant,” Arambula told the online news site CalMatters. “Oftentimes the prenatal vitamins that we give to pregnant people are too late.”

The brain and spine start forming within the first four weeks of gestation, when many women may not even know they’re pregnant.

CalMatters’ staff writer Ana B. Ibarra reported that between 2017 and 2019, the latest years for which state data is available, about 28% of Latinas reported taking folic acid the month before becoming pregnant. That compared to 46% of white women, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Women on Medi-Cal are also less likely to take folic acid before pregnancy, Ibarra reported. She added that women in the San Joaquin Valley and in the far northern part of the state were also less likely to take folic acid than pregnant women living elsewhere in the state.

Backing folic acid

Among the groups supporting Arambula’s bill are the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California and the March of Dimes.

The requirements Arambula’s bill would make are not onerous: Producers would add 0.7 milligrams of folic acid to every pound of masa, and then include the addition on the product nutrition label.

But failing to fortify a masa product would be considered a crime under California’s Sherman Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Law.

That’s as it should be. Companies that make wheat cereals and breads, pastas and rice products already add folic acid. Expanding the requirements to include corn masa is logical and necessary. The proper health of infants, particularly those in the Hispanic community, is at stake.

The California Legislature often gets criticized for pushing unnecessary or job-killing bills. AB 1830 is not that. It is a straightforward attempt to eliminate a gap in federal protections. The Legislature should back it, and Gov. Newsom should sign it.

As a bonus, complying with California’s law could influence the makers of tortillas, corn chips and other such goods across the nation. That would be a win for even more babies.