New California law would require folic acid to be added to corn flour products. Here's why.

Corn tortillas are pictured.
Corn tortillas are pictured.

Manufacturers of corn masa flour may be mandated to add a new ingredient to some products sold in California if a bill proposed by state Rep. Joaquin Arambula passes.

The Fresno Democrat proposed Assembly Bill 1830, which would require folic acid to be added to popularly consumed food items that use corn masa flour, like chips, tortillas, tamales and pupusas.

Folic acid is an important ingredient for women of reproductive age, and Arambula says requiring it to be in some common foods would particularly benefit Latina women, who are less likely to take it early on in pregnancy, according to public health data released by the state.

Arambula, also an emergency room doctor, says the requirement would be 0.7 milligrams of folic acid for every pound of masa. Manufacturers of corn masa flour would be expected make the change by Jan. 1, 2026. The inclusion of folic acid will have to be listed on nutrition labels in accordance with applicable federal law, the bill states.

What is folic acid?

Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, essential in the formation of DNA and RNA. Essentially, folic acid is a B vitamin needed to make new cells.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that women of reproductive age take 400 micrograms of folic acid daily, pregnant or not, on top of consuming food rich in folate like spinach, asparagus, brussels sprouts, avocado, broccoli, said Dr. Joel Mason, director of the vitamins and carcinogenesis team at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.

"Folate is synonymous with vitamin B9," Mason previously told USA TODAY. "Folate works in conjunction with vitamins B2, B6 and B12 in particular to perform some of their health functions."

Consuming folate and folic acid while pregnant guards against certain birth defects like anencephaly and spina bifida, according to the CDC.

What the corn masa flour bill would seek to achieve

In 1998, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration mandated that folic acid be included in enriched grain products like cereals, breads, pasta and rice. As a result, the projected number of babies born with neural tube defects has dropped by 35%, according to the CDC. That is about 1,300 fewer babies every year.

“Food is the best way that we can get folic acid into our communities before they’re pregnant,” Arambula told CalMatters. “Oftentimes the prenatal vitamins that we give to pregnant people are too late.”

Usually, major birth defects occur very early in pregnancy before four weeks gestation. A baby's brain and spine begin to form before most women know they are expecting.

Though the FDA has taken action on fortifying foods with folic acid, it left out corn masa flour from its 1998 mandate. After some pushback, it reviewed and approved the addition of folic acid in corn masa flour in 2016 after the CDC showed how neural tube defects in some Hispanic American populations were not declining in the same way they were in the general population.

According to the FDA, manufacturers may voluntarily add up to 0.7 milligrams of folic acid per pound of corn masa flour if they choose to do so.

This is a "real oversight,” Arambula said. Only 10 percent of corn masa flour products contain folic acid in the United States after the FDA's review.

“Fortification of corn masa flour products could increase folic acid intake by nearly 20 percent for Mexican-Americans," the CDC wrote in a 2009 study. This population that relies heavily on corn flour "has a 30-40 percent higher risk for a number of severe brain and spinal birth defects," the CDC states.

What is the timing of California's new proposal?

The bill is set to go to the Assembly floor in May, a spokesperson for Arambula’s office told SFGATE.

Contributing: Daryl Austin

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why a new California law would require folic acid be in certain foods