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California Bill Forces Makers of Handmade Tortillas to Change Their Recipe

California became known as the first state to do this ban foie gras in 2004. Now the Golden State is turning its attention to another culinary tradition: the handmade tortilla. If a new bill passes in Sacramento, it would require the addition of folic acid to corn masa flour. Under the auspices of public health, the costs of this well-intentioned idea will – as always – fall disproportionately on small businesses.

Bill 1830, introduced by Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno), would require all masa manufacturers to fortify their products with folic acid. This will impact producers of tortillas, as well as producers of pupusas, tamales and taco shells, to name a few.

The reasoning is based on research showing that folic acid intake by women of childbearing age can reduce neural tube birth defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly.

Since 1998, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has mandated folic acid fortification enriched flourswhich is claimed to have resulted in a 35 percent reduction in neural tube birth defects facts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

However, the FDA’s mandate does not apply to unenriched grain or masa flour. There is evidence that Latina mothers have lower folic acid intake than other demographic groups, resulting in a higher rate of birth defects. California Department of Health facts shows that only 28 percent of Latinas reported using folic acid before pregnancy, compared to 46 percent of white women. A 2009 CDC study suggested that mandatory fortification of masa could increase folic acid intake by as much as 30% 20 per cent among Mexican Americans.

In 2016, the FDA implemented this regulations allowing masa flour producers to voluntarily add folic acid to their products. A 2023 report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that only 14 percent of masa products contained folic acid, leading to calls for mandatory fortification.

Earlier this year, Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra gave a speech round table on the fortification of corn masa – an event attended mainly by trade associations and mega-retailers – indicating that the federal government may be preparing to take action. In the meantime, California lawmakers have decided to move forward with their own mandate.

The costs of government mandates always fall most heavily on small businesses and entrepreneurs. Los Angeles Times columnist Gustavo Arellano reports that small tortilla makers – like La Princesita Tortilleria in East Los Angeles – are panicking. La Princesita uses the nixtamalization method (involving only corn masa, water and lime), a culinary heritage that dates back millennia.

Arellano, who likens the taste of mass-produced corn tortillas found in most supermarkets to “the lickable part of an envelope,” conducted a blind taste test of La Princesita’s traditional tortillas alongside the same folic acid-infused tortillas. He immediately tasted the difference, with the folic acid version having a distinct but unidentifiable lingering taste, as well as a more rubbery texture when chewed. La Princesita conducted the same test with its employees, who agreed on the inferior taste – not to mention color – of the folic acid version.

“The danger is that tortilla makers who make it the traditional way will lose their market advantage over others,” Arellano wrote in an email exchange. “That would certainly have an impact on their bottom line, but even worse is the cultural impact. Imagine practicing a diet that dates back thousands of years, only to be told by the government that you can’t do it anymore? at its worst!”

Few dispute the public health benefits of preventing birth defects, but whether folic acid fortification of masa is the best solution is debatable. Neither the US nor California require folic acid to be added unenriched flour, which underlines the arbitrary nature of this mandate. Artisan bakeries that use heirloom grain in the Golden State — which are often frequented by gentrifying hipsters and other high-income demographics — are essentially exempt from folic acid fortification concerns altogether.

Arellano argues that targeting masa is presumptive given the fact studies have shown Latinos in the US consume more flour tortillas, which are already enriched, than corn tortillas. ‘If that is what the bill wants really To address health inequities,” Arellano says, “they should take a holistic approach, not one that is so arbitrarily – and stereotypically – narrow.”

Alternatives to masa flour fortification exist. It could also be added salty (Not that this should also be mandatory), which has long been a proven means of iodine and iron fortification. There could also be more public education about the importance of folic acid for pregnant mothers, along with encouraging women of childbearing age to consider eating more foods rich in folic acid or to Vitamin B9 supplements.

In turn, East Los Angeles tortilla makers are advocating one exemption for restaurants or small producers. Lawmakers could also consider exemptions for producers below a certain threshold, leaving mandate compliance and costs up to Big Tortilla. La Princesita would even settle for being allowed to make a specific product line of tortillas with folic acid, while also maintaining a line of tortillas with the original recipe. But so far, California lawmakers don’t seem inclined to #SaveTheTortilla.