Sometime ago, I heard a story from my biochemistry teacher that amazed me:
“in Prehispanic times, mexican people had the strange habit of cooking maize in lime and water. Why lime?, don’t ask me! I have no idea. So, they cooked maize in water with lime in order to obtain a dough which serve to prepare tortillas, tamales, atoles and all that amazing mexican food (my teacher was French). Later on, Spaniards came to colonize Mexico, and it caught their attention that mexican kids weren’t malnourished, unlike they had a very good aspect, so they attributed this condition to the high consumption of maize. They decided to go to Europe and feed their children with maize, but they missed the recipe: boil two portions of lime solution and one part of maize. And this was basically why maize didn’t work to feed European children, because they didn’t perform the nixtamalization process. This is why maize never become popular there, unlike other crops.”
Of course I don’t know exactly if things happen this way, but it truly amazed me! Mexicans observed that by bolling up maize with a solution of lime, maize became healthier. They discovered “nixtamalization process”.
Nixtamalization is the alcaline boiling process of maize, and as i already told you, has been into practice in Latin America since the Pre-Columbian area.
Alkaline cooking of maize with lime, traditionally called nixtamalization it’s an ancient method practiced by Aztecs; the primary process in the manufacture of several maize products.
General steps to prepare the nixtamal? Our ancients recipe:
- Cook whole maize (about 1/3) in water (2/3) with lime (diluted to 1%).
- Soak the cooked maize for about 12 to 16 hours
- Soaked maize will be the nixtamal and remaining water will be the “nejayote”.
This tecnique softens the maize pericarp (kind of the outer membrane of the maize grain) allowing the endosperm (the inner membrane of the grain) to absowrbe water, making it easier to mill.
Then, the nixtamal is washed in order to remove remaining pieces of pericarp and is stone-grounded to produce the famous “masa” (maize dough). All Mexicans know what happens after this point: tortillas, tamales, corundas, atole, sopes, gorditas… and I could go on and on.
Above, a picture of me enjoying some gorditas at a very typical food market in my hometown called “Mercado de los Antojitos”. Also see the tractional way to ground the masa is in a “metate” (a stone mill). I took this picture maybe 4 years ago in a traditional market also at my hometown (these woman deserve an award! is not easy at all to make masa in a metate, you need a lot of strength).
Mesoamerican civilization was able to observe adverse effects if they didn’t feed their families with nixtamalized maize. We don’t know how they explain it or how they get to that process, but they did.
But, what are the effects of nixtamalization?
Increased soluble fiber, from .9% (in maize grain) to 1.7% in a tortilla. Is important to remember that soluble fiber is desirable to improve nutrient absorption since it retains water, turns into a gel and slows digestions and absorption of nutrients from the stomach and intestine.
Increased bioavailability of niacin. Vitamin B3, or niacin, is not available in maize grain; but nixtamalization releases this vitamin as nicotin acid, so this way our body can use it.
Biological value like protein efficiency increases with nixtamalization. This is why nutritional content of maiz grain proteins is higher after alcaling boiling.
Nixtamalization improves calcium content. Maize dough reaches about 30 times more calcium that the original levels from maize grain. Calcium is highly bioavailable in tortillas; it actually provides half of the consumed calcium per capita in México!
Recently a lot of people is having a misconception of tortillas. First, with all of this “health revolution” and “carbophonia” many people think that tortillas are “only carbs” that you should avoid in order to stop gaining weight. Second popular misconception is to think that tortillas are a product for low class consumption. Well, those people should understand that compared to another refined wheat flour products like white bread our wheat tortillas (tortillas de harina), maize tortilla consumption increases fiber and another important nutrients. Giving up this food either ignorance or other factors, leads to the loss of the enormous nutraceutical benefits that entails it consumption.
Inspite of all the benefits of nixtamalization, it is clear that we need to complement our diet with different sources of protein, vegetables and fruits; and of course, eat them with moderation and without soaking them on oil! (i know its delicious, but not healthy at all). So, are you feeling like eating tacos now? 🙂
Paredes O., Guevara F. and Bello A. (2009). Nixtamalización. Ciencias. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. http://goo.gl/Eiv9Yq
Sefa S. Cornelius B., Sakyi E. and Ohene E. (2004). Effects of the nixtamalization on the chemical and functional properties of maize. Food Chemistry, Elsevier. http://goo.gl/Eiv9Yq