South Texas food staples could help fight birth defects

Food and Drug Administration approved supplementing masa flour with folic acid

SAN ANTONIO – Corn tortillas and tamales, both South Texas staples, could be seen as new weapons in the fight against birth defects.

Corn masa used to make tortillas and tamales is getting a boost in an important ingredients folic acid. Manufacturers are allowed to add up to 0.7 milligrams of folic acid per pound of corn masa flour.

"In 1998, the FDA finally approved putting folic acid in cereal-grain products, but really, for 20 years all the corn based products that we use a lot in San Antonio are corn chips, corn tamales, corn tortillas-didn't have the folic acid," said UT Medicine San Antonio Maternal-Fetal Specialist Dr. Patrick Ramsey.

Folic acid is naturally found in leafy green vegetables like spinach and broccoli, and has been linked to healthier pregnancies and preventing birth defects like spina bifida.

"Spina bifida is a very serious birth defect where the spine is basically exposed to the amniotic fluid and can get damaged during the course of the pregnancy. The long term effects of that if it's not repaired in utero or is damaged in utero is the baby can develop neurological problems, baby can't walk-paraplegic, could have trouble with bowel or bladder dysfunction, it can also affect the brain development so we can also see the developmental delays and handicaps related to that. So it's very important to do primary prevention of folic acid to prevent the birth defect in the first place," Dr. Ramsey said.

It's difficult to get your daily recommended dose of 400 micrograms of folic acid through your diet. That's why doctors, The March of Dimes, and Spina Bifida Texas recommend you take multivitamins.

"Recommendations for folic acid implementation is to take at least a month before you get pregnant and at least for the first three months of pregnancy. Part of the reason the implementation of flour and corn flour is really important because half of our pregnancies aren't planned and you can't do that," explained Dr. Ramsey.

Dr. Ramsey said folic acid fortification is working because since it was added to wheat and flour products nearly 20 years ago, spina bifida cases have dropped an estimated 27 percent. However, the Hispanic population did not see the same dramatic effect. It's why many are hoping that now with the new implementation of folic acid in corn masa flour, it will have a significant impact on the community further reducing the risk of birth defects.

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