Nixtamalization and Nutrition

The functional advantages of nixtamalization are just the beginning of what the process brought to the ancient Mesoamericans. For in the act of making their corn easier to handle and eat, Mesoamerican cooks accidentally unleashed a torrent of nutrients that would otherwise have been unavailable to them. For nixtamalization, it turns out, vastly increases the amount of free niacin present in corn, and renders the protein that it contains much more absorbable by the body.

What’s niacin? We know it as vitamin B3. It’s an essential nutrient, without which the body’s metabolism begins to slow down. Left unchecked a severe niacin deficiency leads to a disease called pellagra. What’s pellagra? Well, Europeans — especially Italians — found out all about it when they imported corn from the New World but not the nixtamalization process. Poor people who subsisted on nothing other than corn polenta began to exhibit skin rashes (the word “pellagra” is Italian for “rough skin”), weakness and in the worst cases dementia and death. Terrible stuff, pellagra, and it wasn’t just limited to Italy. The southern U.S. had tremendous problems with it until pellagra’s cause was finally identified in 1938.

But back to Mesoamerica. So what happened when the peoples of that region started eating corn that was suddenly rich in vital nutrients? Pretty much what you’d expect. Malnutrition decreased and populations increased. So powerful was the effect of nixtamalization, or so many historians speculate, that it allowed the tribes of Mesoamerica to grow into societies, the societies to grow into civilizations, and the civilizations to build great cities like Tikal and Teotihuacán.

Could a silly thing like a handful of wood ash dropped into a bowl of wet corn do all that? It seems it can. Quite likely, it did.

5 thoughts on “Nixtamalization and Nutrition”

  1. Recipes,. how to do it in easy language, and great conversation fillers for those awkward moments, you cover it all Joe 😉



  2. I find it interesting how two processes that are similar (if only on the surface) have managed to help people in one part of the planet, and hurt the other. All of us of european decent have been, for so many generations, trying to get whiter and more pure flour by disposing off of the bran and all, and slowly paving a way for the diabetes epidemic; while native american people have very early on learned to make their own major staple more bioavailable and nourishing by doing the same thing, only by means of a chemical reaction as opposed to a mechanical one.

    1. Ah yes, but look at what many people (I won’t name names) are saying about corn these days! I don’t agree with it, but it just goes to show that there’s no such thing as a food that’s perfect for everyone. Starches, meats, fats, they’re all controversial in their own way no matter who first brought them to the world-culinary table.

      Thanks for the comment, Dani!

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