Why is the government messing with our tortillas?

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La Princesita makes their corn tortillas using three ingredients. If it's up to the California legislature, they may be adding a fourth. Photo courtesy of La Princesita.

The government of California might be getting into the tortilla production business… kind of. A proposed California law (Assembly Bill 1830) would require masa producers to add folic acid, aka vitamin B-9, to all masa and corn masa products. The goal is to help prevent birth defects. But not all tortilla makers are thrilled about the idea, Los Angeles Times reporter Gustavo Arellano explains.

Expectant mothers require high amounts of folic acid to ward off neurological birth defects such as spina bifida. Both the U.S. and Mexican governments already require that folic acid be added to certain products. In 1998, the U.S. mandated that all enriched grains, aside from corn, include folic acid. In 2008, the Mexican government made the same requirement for all masa products although the legislation is not as heavily enforced. Since these laws went into effect, the rate of spina bifida has dropped by 35%. 

Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno), who drafted AB1830, was an emergency room doctor before he became a politician. Arellano explains that the health inequities in California's Central Valley motivated Arambula to draft the bill, which would impact expectant mothers in these communities. 

"Who wants to be against neonatal health?" asks Arellano, while simultaneously raising his hand. The cost comes from changing a process that has existed for thousands of years. Arellano adds, "It's basically cultural imperialism done in the name of California trying to help other people."

More: 'Maíz is life' — the history, science, and politics of masa