Taking aim at birth defects

Citing the fact that Hispanic babies are more prone to a serious birth defect of the brain and spinal cord, the March of Dimes has called on the FDA to require that corn masa be fortified with folic acid, as it requires for many other grain products.

Neural tube defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly occur when the protective sheath around the spinal cord fails to close completely. About 3,000 pregnancies each year result in a neural tube defect.

Folic acid, a B vitamin found in lentils, leafy greens, citrus fruits and other foods, can reduce the risk of neural tube defects. The March of Dimes recommends that women of childbearing age take a multivitamin with 400 micrograms of folic acid each day.

“The effort by The March of Dimes to have corn masa meal fortified with folic acid makes perfect sense, as it forms a central component of the diet of this high-risk Hispanic group,” said Dr. Leslie Myatt, director of the Center for Pregnancy and Newborn Research at the University of Texas Health Science Center.

“During pregnancy, folic acid prevents neural tube defects and can help prevent other birth defects,” Myatt said. “This is of heightened relevance to the Hispanic population. Women who are obese or diabetic, which are issues in the Hispanic population of South Texas, have higher rates of neural tube defects.”

Because many pregnancies are unplanned, and because diets and the use of supplements vary, the United States in 1998 began requiring that certain grain products be fortified with folic acid. They include bread, cereal, flour, cornmeal, pasta and white rice. Since then, rates of neural tube defects have declined by 30 to 40 percent. Still, neural tube defect rates remain significantly higher among Hispanics.

 In its new report, the March of Dimes urged the FDA to broaden the list of folic acid-fortified foods to include corn masa, believing it might increase folic acid intake for some Hispanic women. The recommendations also call for more education and outreach “to encourage Hispanic women of childbearing age to take a multivitamin daily, in addition to consuming a healthy diet.”

 Photo by Paul Goyette, Chicago, Illinois