Health advocates score a major victory with folic acid

The Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday that it would allow folic acid to be added to corn flour in order to prevent certain types of birth defects. The decision was a major victory for health advocates around the nation, who credit the additive with preventing some 1,300 birth defects per year. Judy Woodruff sits down with Dr. Jose Cordero of the University of Georgia for more.

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    A major health announcement in the U.S. today.

    The Food and Drug Administration said it will permit one of the B vitamins, folic acid, to be added to corn masa flour, used in making tortillas and other favorites of Hispanic households, this to help prevent neural tube birth defects, such as spina bifida.

    Folic acid has been in fortify wheat flour since 1996, and is credited with preventing some 1,300 birth defects a year. Health advocates have long petitioned to include it in corn flour as well.

    For more, Dr. Jose Cordero joins us. He is professor at the University of Georgia, former director of the National Center on Birth Defects. He is currently on the board of the March of Dimes, which is one of the groups that pressed for the change.

    Dr. Cordero, thank you for being with us.

    What's your reaction to this announcement?

    DR. JOSE CORDERO, University of Georgia: Well, it was tremendous joy.

    This is just a tremendous occasion, that, finally, after 10 years of asking for having folic acid included in corn masa flour, finally, it's here. And it is very important, because, right now, not only in Hispanic households, but we all in the country are eating more tortilla chips than we are eating potato chips.

    So, it is an important source of having folic acid that could help us prevent some very serious birth defects like spina bifida.


    What difference do you think it's going to make? Can you quantify? We talked about the number of birth defects that have been prevented because of adding it to wheat flour. What difference do you think it's going to make going forward?


    Well, the difference it is going to make, it is going to reduce the number of babies that are going to be born with spina bifida and anencephaly to serious neural tube defects.

    And it is going to be maybe 40 or a year more, but it could be even more. But the important thing is that we have known that folic acid can prevent these serious birth defects. I think we are at a point that even one would be too many.


    Dr. Cordero, we know that the company that makes so much of this corn flour already fortifies corn flour sold in Mexico. But it is only now able to do it in the United States. How do you explain the Food and Drug Administration taking this long to make it — to allow it to be fortified here in the U.S.?


    Well, it is something that's hard to explain, but the Food and Drug Administration follows some rules on how to process and apply even the citizens petition.

    But I think that the good point is finally it is here, and no longer we will have this contrast, and I would say disparity, where you can get corn masa flour in Mexico and Venezuela and Costa Rica, but not here.

    And Gruma, the company that makes these products, it is — was part of the group and will be getting this product into the market very soon.


    Well, the Food and Drug Administration says the reason has to do with needing evidence, but, as you say, the evidence has been there for many years.

    I think it's hard for people to understand why so many years have been allowed to go by, and why, presumably, you know, women have been allowed to give birth to some babies with these birth defects, and this hasn't taken place, and especially in the Hispanic community.


    Yes, that's the case.

    We have that among Hispanics. The rate of these serious defects is about twice as high as it is in African-Americans or whites. So there's been a disparity. And the FDA was asking for additional information.

    And thanks to March of Dimes, we were able to get the studies done, demonstrate that in fact the product will continue to have sufficient folic acid through the shell life. And I think that that's what made the difference.

    I'm so glad that we could move forward and celebrate that actually corn masa flour, tortilla chips, or your tortillas when you go to a Mexican restaurant will have folic acid.


    Dr. Jose Cordero, now on the board of the March of Dimes, we thank you.

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