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American Tortillas Missing Key Ingredient


Last updated 9/4/2015 at 11:17am

Miguel Rocha

Corn tortilla lovers will have another reason, as if they need another, to love this corn-derived goodness after they learn that a life-saving vitamin could be added to the mix. Folic acid, or B9, which has been a mandatory ingredient in enriched four in the U.S. since 1998, could potentially be added to corn masa flour. Folic acid prevents approximately 1,300 babies a year from being born with neural birth defects. Hispanic women have the highest rates, 30 - 40 percent, of giving birth to babies whose spinal cord, spine and brain have not fully developed, and added to that is the fact that mothers are not receiving the essential folic acid.

The Food and Drug Administration has not allowed this vitamin to be added to corn masa flour because of Alkaline; though it has been a standard ingredient in masa-mixture in south-of-the-border countries like Mexico and El Salvador. The FDA is not sure if Alkaline, which gives tortillas its flavor and feel, would be a stable component when mixed with folic acid. But after a petition from March of Dimes and other coalition groups, the FDA had no other alternative but to have tests done. "That population (Latino community) deserves to have the protection, given their babies are at highest risk," said Edward McCabe, chief medical officer for the March of Dimes Foundation.

The test was performed by food scientist, Michael Dunn, from the Brigham Young University. Gruma, a Mexican multinational corn and tortilla company, donated 3,000 pounds of corn for the $700,000-test. Due to the complexity in mixing milligrams of folic acid to a gigantic amount of corn, Dunn had to use a special multidirectional mixer that is used by pharmacy companies, to get the best samples. After six moths, Dunn said that the stability of the results are promising. During the test, he and his students made tortillas at an industrial kitchen to see the reaction of the folic acid. They were worried about the reaction created when wet dough is thrown into hot frying oil for the tortilla chips, but they didn't see any negative results. Dunn is now putting together the last pieces of the data to give to the FDA. After that, it is in the hands of the agency.

Even though it is unsure what the affect folic acid has on the rest of the society, it is known that it has a positive effect for pregnant women to prevent birth defects. Folic acid is a naturally-occurring form of folate in lentils, leafy greens, among other foods. And if taken early in pregnancy, it can prevent anencephaly, a birth defect in which the baby is born without part of the brain and skull, which is fatal, and neural tube defect, a debilitating condition.

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