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.