Corn, a traditional food from Mexico, has been one of the dietary staples of Mesoamerica for millenia. The historic region of Mesoamerica comprises the modern day countries of northern Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, and central to southern Mexico. Anthropologists date the domestication of corn (maize) in Mesoamerica to 5300 BCE and, since then, it has been an important factor in the development of numerous civilizations. Some of the most well-known Mesoamerican cultures are the Olmec, Maya, Zapotec, Teotihuacan, Mixtec, and Mexica (or Aztec), who regarded corn as much more than a staple. For Native Americans, corn was the food of the gods. Corn was the mother of all human creation.
Although corn chips, tortillas and other corn products typical of Mexican food have become very popular in the United States, most Americans don’t know about the original corn processing method used by Mesoamericans called Nixtamalization [from the nahuatl “nextli” (ashes) and “tamalli” (cooked corn dough)].
This process is still traditionally used in large areas of rural Mexico for the production of corn masa which is then used to make tortillas, tamales, and many other delicacies. The Nixtamalization consists of boiling the corn kernels in hot water with alkali (calcium hydroxide -pickling lime-) for 30-45 minutes or until soft. Then, the fire is turned off and the kernels are left soaking in the alkaline water overnight (8-12hr). Corn is then drained in a colander and rinsed multiple times as kernels are rubbed vigorously by hand to remove most of the bran from the corn and to wash off the excess lime. The resulting corn can then be grinded into a fine corn flour or turned into corn masa with the addition of water. The Mexica used to grind the corn on an instrument made of volcanic rock called “metate” and this continues to be used in rural areas of Mexico. Likewise, the tortillas are still made by hand in many regions of Mexico, and cooked in a round flat surface called “comal”, originally made of clay.
Nixtamalization was an essential process for Mesoamerican cultures using corn as a food source because it removes toxins present in the bran or from potential fungal contamination, while increasing the nutritional value of the corn by making important nutrients bioavailable. Nixtamalization makes minerals like iron, calcium, zinc, copper and the vitamin folate easy for our gut to absorb and improves protein digestibility. In particular, corn contains high levels of vitamin B3 (niacin) but we can’t utilize it without nixtamalization. Niacin deficiency causes a disease called Pellagra that Mesoamericans were able to avoid by eating food products prepared with nixtamalized corn.
Pellagra is a chronic niacin deficiency that brings on four progressively catastrophic “Ds”: diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia, and death. The human body uses niacin, or vitamin B3, to control blood sugar, process fats, maintain healthy skin, and make new DNA. Early symptoms of pellagra include loss of appetite, irritability, and vomiting, followed by inflammation of the mouth and tongue and a scaly red rash on the hands and neck. Because niacin can be obtained from a variety of food products, pellagra is rare in modern times.
When European invaders first arrived in Mesoamerica, they saw corn as another potential commodity destined to become a cheap and widespread food source. But their ignorance of the process of Nixtamalization caused a widespread epidemic of Pellagra in several European countries in the 1700s. By the early 1900s, the epidemic of Pellagra had expanded to the south of the United States, to corn-dependent populations that lacked access to meat and fresh produce.
Nixtamalization furthermore lowers corn’s glycemic index reducing the risk of developing diabetes. Corn continues to represent a very important source of nutrition in many areas suffering from food insecurity, so this process continues to be essential in modern Mexico. Lime-cooked maize products also have a unique and tasty flavor!
In modern times, the metate and comal, traditionally used to grind corn and make tortillas, have been replaced by automatic machines that make hundreds of thousands of tortillas daily, to satisfy the high demand for this product throughout Mexican cities and towns. However, many of the establishments that make tortillas (“tortillerias”) continue to use nixtamalized corn to make the masa.
Unfortunately, more recent generations of Mexicans and immigrants to the USA are unaware of the process of Nixtamalization because it has been replaced by the use of harmful chemicals in the over industrialization of food production. The food industry has turned a highly nutritious staple into a calorie dense but nutrient lacking fake food in order to mass produce and increase the shelf-life of tortillas. Not only are chemically-treated tortillas less nutritious and higher in starch, but this processing also negatively affects the flavor and texture, and it may contribute to the higher incidence of type 2 diabetes prevalent in Mexican immigrants.
Another factor that has negatively affected the health of Mexicans and immigrants is the extensive use of genetically-modified strains of corn (GMO) which are used in an effort to protect crops from drought and plagues that could decimate corn fields in a matter of days.
By now the majority of corn that is grown in the USA, and even in Mexico, is GMO. One of the most recent strains of GMO corn was made to withstand large amounts of a harmful pesticide called glyphosate. Some studies have suggested possible associations between glyphosate exposure and various health issues. These include non-Hodgkin lymphoma, kidney and liver damage, reproductive and developmental effects, and disruption of the endocrine system, and research continues to accumulate on glyphosate’s effects to human health. Sadly, Gonzalez-Ortega, et.al., 2017, found that 90.4% of tortillas sampled in Mexico and other countries contained transgenes (meaning they came from GMO corn) and about 27.7% of those, had traces of glyphosate. Additionally, the variety of corn seeds worldwide has decreased considerably and crops have been selected or engineered to be sweeter at the expense of a higher starch and lower protein content. Heirloom varieties of corn of multiple colors are still found in Mexico, with white and blue varieties being the most common in that country. Indigenous organic farmers in several rural areas of Mexico are making an effort to preserve and distribute these ancient, non-GMO, varieties of corn. However, in the United States, white corn is mainly utilized as animal feed in factory farms and the variety commonly found for human consumption, the yellow corn, has a sweeter flavor and a higher starch content and glycemic index, significantly increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes in Mexican immigrants that consume it in large amounts.
In addition to this, consuming corn products is controversial in the holistic health spaces that tend to classify it as harmful to health because its production is highly subsidized by the US government and it is cultivated in excess to produce corn oil, high fructose corn syrup, and a myriad of other chemicals heavily used in ultra-processed foods that are highly inflammatory and significantly increase the risk of obesity and chronic diseases. This indiscriminate growth of corn monocultures for processed or industrially-produced foods is also extremely harmful to the environment for many reasons including the widespread use of harmful pesticides and fertilizers. In addition to this, corn is a nutrient-demanding crop that requires large amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Continuous corn cultivation without proper nutrient management can deplete the soil of these essential nutrients, leading to nutrient imbalances and reduced fertility. This impacts the health of the topsoil and affects the growth of future crops.
Nevertheless, organic, non-GMO corn that has been properly prepared by the process of Nixtamalization, is not only perfectly healthy, but it belongs in the diet of people of Mesoamerican ancestry and should continue to be an important part of the traditional foods we consume. But for the sake of your own health and the health of our planet, always favor products that are non-GMO certified, and produced by the ancient method of Nixtamalization if accessible to you.
But how do I know if the tortillas have been Nixtamalized, you may ask? Look at the list of ingredients in the package, lime should always be listed as an ingredient in nixtamalized corn tortillas or masa. And you will be able to tell the difference when you taste them too!
“Our Creation Story teaches us that the first Grandparents of our people were made from white and yellow corn. Maize is sacred to us because it connects us with our ancestors. It feeds our spirit as well as our bodies.” Juana Batz Puac, K’iche’ Maya, Day Keeper
Bioavailability – the extent a substance or drug becomes completely available to its intended biological destination(s).
Glycemic index – The glycaemic index (GI) is a rating system for foods containing carbohydrates. It shows how quickly each food affects your blood sugar (glucose) level when that food is eaten on its own.
- Peres, T.M. (2016). Malnourished. Cultural ignorance paved the way for pellagra. Published in: Gravy, from the Southern Foodways Alliance. Retrieved from: https://www.southernfoodways.org/malnourished-cultural-ignorance-paved-the-way-for-pellagra/
- Meftaul, I.M.; et.al. (2020) Controversies over human health and ecological impacts of glyphosate: Is it to be banned in modern agriculture?. Environmental Pollution, Volume 263, Part A, 114372, ISSN 0269-7491, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2020.114372.
- González-Ortega, A. Piñeyro-Nelson, E. Gómez-Hernández, E. Monterrubio-Vázquez, M. Arleo, J. Dávila-Velderrain, C. Martínez-Debat & E.R. Álvarez-Buylla (2017) Pervasive presence of transgenes and glyphosate in maize-derived food in Mexico, Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 41:9-10, 1146-1161, DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2017.1372841
- Organic Consumers Mexico (2017) OCA Mexico Campaign Aims to ‘Nix’ Deception by Industrial Tortilla-Makers. Organic Consumers Association. Retrieved from: https://www.organicconsumers.org/blog/oca-mexico-campaign-aims-nix-deception-industrial-tortilla-makers
- Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (2023). Living Maya Time: Creation Story of the Maya. Retrieved from: https://maya.nmai.si.edu/the-maya/creation-story-maya