Science & Technology

Preventing birth defects: UGA child health expert praises FDA decision to fortify corn masa flour

José F. Cordero

Athens, Ga. – Corn masa flour, a staple in Hispanic cooking, is getting an added boost of nutrition, a move designed to reduce significant birth defects like spina bifida. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration made the announcement April 14.

University of Georgia professor and maternal and child health expert José F. Cordero led a press conference of the March of Dimes and the partners that presented the Citizen’s Petition to FDA requesting that corn masa flour be fortified with folic acid.

“We have some good news in the birth defects prevention front,” said Cordero, a board-certified pediatrician and the Patel Distinguished Professor of Public Health in the UGA College of Public Health. “The FDA announced that they will allow voluntary fortification of corn masa flour with folic acid. Since the FDA required folic acid fortification for wheat flour in 1996, there has been a major gap in fortification as corn masa flour was not included.”

Corn masa flour is used to make Hispanic staples such as tortillas, tamales and empanadas.

Spina bifida cases declined sharply in all countries that implemented wheat flour fortification-overall, neural tube defects dropped by 27 percent, or about 1,300 births per year-except in Hispanic populations.

The rates of spina bifida in Hispanics remained about twice as high as for whites and African-Americans, Cordero explained.

“Several studies showed that most Hispanics consume products derived from corn masa flour rather than wheat flour, and that could explain the gap,” said Cordero, who is now head of the department of epidemiology and biostatics at UGA after serving in the U.S. Public Health Service at the CDC for 27 years. “Countries where corn masa flour fortification was implemented together with wheat flour have seen a major drop in spina bifida-to a level that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers to be the bare minimum.”

The FDA announcement was followed by an almost immediate distribution of fortified corn masa flour by the Gruma Corporation, he said, which is the largest manufacturer of corn masa flour in the U.S. and in the world. The announcement reflects the FDA’s decision to accept a citizens’ petition filed in 2012 by the March of Dimes, American Academy of Pediatrics, Spina Bifida Association, National Council of La Raza, Royal DSM and Gruma Corporation.

“We hope to see an important decline in spina bifida in the U.S. within a year or two,” he said.

A video of Cordero discussing corn masa flour and the FDA’s decision is available at