On Corn Meal and Masa

Reader Simone wants to know if there’s a nutritional difference between corn meal and corn masa (the alkaline-treated dough used for making tortillas). Indeed there is!

Though no one knows exactly how, ancient Mesoamericans long ago discovered that when you soak corn kernels in a mixture of water and wood ashes, the tough outer hulls (pericarps) can be slipped off, leaving just the starchy endosperm and oily germ. The process is called nixtamalization. Without it the Central America of old would have been a very different place.

For in the process 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. It also makes the protein in corn 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 cooked corn meal (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. Thanks Simone!

7 thoughts on “On Corn Meal and Masa”

  1. I wonder if this is the same chemical process that occurs when you boil hazelnuts in water with some bicard soda, their skins just sliiiiiiiiiide right off as well – surely it must be the same thing!


    1. Interesting parallel, CfDU. I’ll bet something very similar is going on.

      – Joe

    1. Hey Jennifer!

      That is very good stuff indeed. I’ll bet there was fresh masa around as well! I miss that living here in Louisville. In Chicago I could buy it for things like tamales. Hopefully one of these days someone will open a tortilla bakery here!


      – Joe

  2. So interesting and leads to the next question. Tamales are made from corn masa. Is the word tamale derived from the process name “nixtamalization”? I see “t-a-m-a-l” right there in the middle of the word. Or could it be the other way around, the process name is derived from a product of corn masa, the tamale?


    1. Hey Eva!

      According my my linguist spouse, “tamal” is a Nahuatl (Aztec) word that means “wrapped”. Exactly what it’s doing in the middle of “nixtamalization” she can’t explain, however. I’d speculate that it means “tamal dough” or something like that. Where is a good Nahuatl dictionary when you need one?

      Thanks for the great question!

      – Joe

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