The government started pushing food companies to add vitamins to their products back during World War II. Too many prospective soldiers were malnourished.
Now, federal health officials are looking to fortify more foods again. This time they are after healthy babies, not healthier soldiers.
The goal: Persuade millers to add folic acid, a synthetic B vitamin, to all corn flour. Folate, related to folic acid, occurs naturally in some foods.
Most wheat flour and wheat products are sold as enriched – and have been since 1943. Adding folic acid to wheat flour had a dramatic effect.
The government estimates that 1,000 babies are born healthy every year now that wouldn’t have earlier.
But the news isn’t quite as good for Hispanics, who have the lowest rates of folic acid consumption of any racial group.
They also have higher rates of those folate-related birth defects, about 4.2 per 10,000 births, compared with 3.4 per 10,000 for non-Hispanic whites.
Genetically, Hispanic women may have a harder time metabolizing folate. They also are less likely to eat fortified breakfast cereal, and they tend to eat products containing corn, not wheat. Most corn flour isn’t enriched.
“If you go to a supermarket and buy corn tortillas or corn chips, you have to work hard to find a bag that says it’s enriched and fortified. Almost all of it’s not,” said Jose Cordero, director of the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Food manufacturers pay about $10 for 100 pounds of corn flour or meal. Enriching the product with vitamins costs about 15 cents per 100 pounds, including about 3 to 4 cents for folic acid, according to the North American Millers Association.
This will be good news to women like Emily Gonzales-Abreu of Hollywood, Fla., whose 6-year-old Angeline was born with spina bifida. Angeline was operated on while she was still in Emily’s womb, but she has nerve damage nevertheless.
She’s had several more operations since birth, including the addition of a shunt to drain fluid from her brain.
“The spina bifida world is full of doctors, therapies, physical, speech and occupational. It’s very medically involved,” her mother said.
She says many Hispanic women she talks to don’t know that they need extra folic acid.
She would like to have more children, so she takes heavy supplements of folic acid, 10 times the recommended amount for women (400 micrograms daily) because she knows through testing that her body has trouble absorbing the nutrient.