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How corn masa could help lower birth defect risks among Hispanic people


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging manufacturers of masa - that's a corn flour used to make foods like tortillas and tamales - to add in some folic acid. The idea is to try to lower the risk of certain birth defects in the Hispanic population. Texas Public Radio's Bonnie Petrie explains.

BONNIE PETRIE, BYLINE: Spina bifida is a neural tube defect, an NTD, a birth defect that develops during the first month of pregnancy before most have any idea they might be pregnant. When the neural tube doesn't close all the way, the spinal cord is unprotected, which can lead to damage to the spinal cord and nerves and a range of physical and intellectual disabilities. One group of Americans is particularly vulnerable.

JENNY WILLIAMS: Hispanic women, unfortunately, have the highest risk of having a neural tube defect affected pregnancy, and that's for a variety of reasons.

PETRIE: Captain Jenny Williams, a nurse epidemiologist, is team lead of the Neural Tube Defect Surveillance and Prevention team at CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities.

WILLIAMS: They have risk factors. Like, some genetic variations are found in the Hispanic population at higher rates than they are in non-Hispanic whites or non-Hispanic Blacks.

PETRIE: Folic acid is a form of folate, vitamin B9. Neural tube defects are linked with folate deficiency at the beginning of a pregnancy. So since 1998, the Food and Drug Administration has required that companies add folic acid to rice and wheat products.

WILLIAMS: So anything that's labeled enriched will have folic acid included in that product.

PETRIE: So breakfast cereals and bread and pasta. Staples for many Americans. Are all fortified with folic acid, but corn masa flour is not.

TERRI LOCKE: We had enchiladas and chili.

PETRIE: Terri Locke is Latina. These were the staple foods in her home growing up, and masa was a key ingredient.

LOCKE: We did a lot of tortillas, a lot of sopaipillas.

PETRIE: Locke has spine bifida and associated medical challenges, including tethered spinal cord syndrome and clubfoot.

LOCKE: So it was a difficult childhood of just in and out of the hospital, you know, having - I've probably had maybe 12 surgeries on my foot to lengthen my heel cords and things like that.

PETRIE: In 2016, the FDA agreed to let corn masa manufacturers fortify their flour with folic acid if they wanted to. But Williams with the CDC says it's unclear right now how much masa and how many masa containing products like tortilla chips actually contain folic acid. Whatever it is, it's not enough to significantly reduce the risk of neural tube defects in the Hispanic population. Williams sees that as another unacceptable health disparity.

WILLIAMS: Hispanic women have the highest rates of NTDs. We know how to prevent these NTDs, but we need to be able to get that prevention to the people that need it the most.

PETRIE: Terri Locke agrees. After a lifetime of surgeries, she still deals with constant pain. She believes fortifying foods that are staples in her culture will reduce the risk that others will experience that pain.

LOCKE: If we prevent one child from having spina bifida, that's huge.

PETRIE: CDC is planning research in U.S. markets with high populations of Hispanics from Mexico and Central America to determine which stores carry fortified corn masa flour products and how much shelf space is allocated to them. For NPR News, I'm Bonnie Petrie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Bonnie Petrie