Food companies thwarting success of FDA fortification policy, report finds

making tortillas

Liliana -

CSPI couldn’t find a single corn tortilla that contained folic acid

Food companies are neglecting to take a simple step that could help prevent debilitating birth defects, according to a new report released today by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The report, Failure to Fortify, looked at hundreds of products containing corn masa flour—the main ingredient in foods like corn tortillas and tamales. It found that six years after companies were permitted to add folic acid to corn masa flour, only 14 percent of corn masa flour products and not a single corn tortilla product contained folic acid. 

Consuming enough folic acid, a synthetic form of vitamin B9, before or during early pregnancy reduces the risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect like spina bifida or anencephaly. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration began encouraging food manufacturers to add folic acid to staple foods like wheat flour, bread, and pasta in the 1990s. This led to a 28 percent reduction in rates of neural tube defects in the United States, preventing an estimated 1,326 births with neural tube defects each year. But it wasn’t until more recently that FDA added corn masa to this list of foods that may be fortified with folic acid. 

Corn masa fortification was proposed in 2012 as a way of preventing neural tube defects in the Latine population, where rates are higher compared to other groups. That year, a coalition of health advocates and food companies including Walmart and Gruma (which owns brands like Maseca and Mission tortillas) petitioned the FDA to allow food manufacturers and ingredient suppliers to add folic acid to corn masa. FDA approved the petition in 2016. 

CSPI’s report evaluated food manufacturers’ uptake of FDA’s corn masa fortification policy by looking at the ingredients in a sample of 59 corn masa flour products and 476 corn tortilla products. It found that, at present, most companies are still not fortifying these products, and even Walmart and Gruma have not fully adopted the policy. Gruma has added folic acid to only some of its corn masa flour products (5 of 10 unique products, though the company says these products account for 85 percent of its corn masa flour sales) and none of its corn tortillas, while Walmart does not appear to have added folic acid to any of its store-brand corn masa products. 

“It’s disappointing that the very companies that advocated for the fortification policy have so far not followed through by actually fortifying all of their products,” said CSPI senior policy scientist Eva Greenthal. “It’s not often that a minor change in product formulation could save lives. These companies have a moral imperative to do right by their customers and add folic acid to their products.” 

But a change may be on the horizon. In response to inquiries from CSPI, Gruma stated that the company plans to “complete the migration of [its] remaining corn masa flour products” and to fortify its “core corn tortillas” by 2024. Walmart did not respond to outreach from CSPI. 

“We look forward to seeing Gruma fulfill its commitments,” Greenthal said. “We urge all manufacturers to add folic acid to their corn masa products sold in the United States.”  

“Nearly seven years after the FDA gave food companies the green light to fortify corn masa flour products with folic acid, food companies have not stepped up,” said Eric Rodriguez, Senior Vice President of Policy and Advocacy at UnidosUS (formerly National Council of La Raza), which was part of the coalition that petitioned FDA to permit the addition of folic acid to corn masa flour in 2012. “Since that decision, folic acid consumption has not changed significantly among Latinas of reproductive age who buy corn masa products, which leaves their children at heightened risk of birth defects and long-term disability. Today’s report is a wake-up call, and we’re optimistic that industry stakeholders who value their relationships with Hispanic communities will respond by reformulating corn masa products to better protect Latino families.” 

Dr. Vijaya Kancherla, Assistant Professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Deputy Director of the Center for Spina Bifida Prevention at Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, is the lead author of a previous study exposing nationwide failure of folic acid fortification of corn masa flour and tortillas with folic acid. 

“Urgent action on corn masa fortification with folic acid will benefit Latine families across the U.S. Unequal access to fortified, culturally relevant foods over the last two decades in this country needs to be fixed,” said Dr. Kancherla. 

Click here to read the report in Spanish. 

The report was supported by The Koran Family Fund. 


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