Food Manufacturers Not Taking FDA Advice on Fortification

A CSPI report finds that food companies aren't adding folic acid, which can reduce birth defects, to corn masa products.

Powder Bulk Solids Staff

February 24, 2023

3 Min Read
Food companies not listening to FDA on fortification
A CSPI report finds that food companies are thwarting success of the FDA fortification policy.Fernando Andrade/Unsplash

According to a new report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), food companies aren't taking a step that could help prevent birth defects. The report, Failure to Fortify, looked at hundreds of products containing corn masa flour — the main ingredient in foods such as corn tortillas and tamales.

Six years after companies were permitted to add folic acid to corn masa flour, the report found that only 14% 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 FDA 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% reduction in rates of neural tube defects in the US, preventing an estimated 1,326 births with neural tube defects each year.

But corn masa wasn't added to the list of foods that could be fortified with folic acid until years later. 

Corn masa fortification was proposed in 2012 as a way of preventing neural tube defects in the Latine population, where rates are highest. 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 the date of the report, 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% 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.”  

Eric Rodriguez, senior vice president of Policy and Advocacy at UnidosUS (formerly National Council of La Raza), was part of the coalition that petitioned FDA to permit the addition of folic acid to corn masa flour in 2012.

“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,” he said. “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.” 

Read the Failure to Fortify report in Spanish here. 

About the Author(s)

Powder Bulk Solids Staff

Established in 1983, Powder & Bulk Solids (PBS) serves industries that process, handle, and package dry particulate matter, including the food, chemical, and pharmaceutical markets.

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