Corn, Nixtamal and your Health- Oh my!

As many are aware, corn is an essential ingredient in the Mexican diet and diets of those in surrounding areas. People around the world, especially in Mexico, are very dependent on corn for a great portion of their menu. Food items utilizing corn range from the masa for tortillas to tamales, cornmeal, and even grits in the South. I believe that nixtamalization is a very important process and should be required by for all corn products.

How and why is corn nixtamalized?

Nixtamalization is crucial to the consumption of corn products. Without this treatment, extreme illness and death can occur. The pericarp/hull of the corn must be removed before grinding and cooking. Below is a picture that depicts the various parts of a kernel of corn. The hull/pericarp are the outside membrane that needs to be shed by Nixtamalization.

pericarp and corn
The corn kernel labeled. The Pericarp/hull is the outside shell that is removed in nixtamalization.

As described by the journal article “Nutraceutical Properties of Flour and Tortillas Made with an Ecological Nixtamalization Process”, there are different ways of preparing corn for production. In the following video, experts talk about the importance of the nixtamalization process.

Positive Health Affects of Nixtamalized Corn

In the following video, the narrator outlines the steps of nixtamalization and other useful information about the process. It also explains the health affects had by nixtamalization and the nutritional information of the corn and the products contained within. Centro Ineternacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz Y Trigo (translated to Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) is a nonprofit organization that compiled the video to share awareness of this process.

The video addresses five benefits of nixtamalized corn. The first reason: it decreases the risk of Pellagra disease. Pellagra disease can have but is not limited to the following effects: a lack of calcium in the body, poor bone structure and/or skin disease including rashes, among others. Nixtamalizng corn is also beneficial because it can increase calcium and vitamin B intake. When the nixtamalization occurs during the steeping process, calcium is released and absorbed. This can be very beneficial to urban communities where many have trouble obtaining all necessary vitamins and minerals. Other benefits include increased resistant starch content, a reduced presence of mycotoxins in kernels, and among the community, a decrease in anemia resulting from an increase of iron in kernels.

Methods of Nixtamalization

One process that “Nutraceutical Properties of Flour and Tortillas Made with an Ecological Nixtamalization Process” describes is the traditional method in which corn is cooked in a water bath along with Calcium Hydroxide and lime. After the pericarp/hull has been removed, the corn can be used in various applications. When making tortillas, the corn is ground into masa and then formed into tortillas. The article also asserts the traditional method as less efficient because, “it involves a high consumption of water, the production of solid residues [pericarp/hull], contaminating effluents, an increased cost and the loss of nutrients such as fats, proteins, dietary fibers and various nutraceutial compounds” (Mendez, 1).

Another method of nixtamalizing is ecological nixtamalization. This process was developed and created by Figueroa and others in 2011. This method is better because it mitigates harmful effects and allows nutrient retention in the corn. The method uses calcium salts instead of calcium hydroxide. The article also says that when this ecological nixtamalized corn was tested on rats, there was a weight gain amongst the rats and higher dietary protein values.

Birth Defects and Nixtamalization

While reading this, one can tell how important it is to utilize nixtamalization. In “Health and food Safety: The Benefits of Bt-Corn” by Drew Kershen, a group of people were examined in the early 1990s when scientists noticed a trend. A number of pregnancies involving birth defects called Neural tube defect (NTDs) were noted. The group with a higher incident of NTDs occurred in the Rio Grande valley, a region bordering Mexico. The Texas Department of State Health Services (TDSHS) accepted the case and looked at possible reasons for a dramatic increase in NTDs. The researchers determined the women in the area consumed a diet heavily reliant on corn tortillas. Researchers from the TDSHS also found that their corn contained fumonisin, a mycotoxin. The second video from earlier talked about how if properly processed, the nixtamalization process adds vitamin B and calcium to the corn.

Conclusion

Corn is a staple in many diets around the world. These articles and videos demonstrate how crucial it is to properly clean and de-pericarp/hull the kernels before grinding into a paste, mixing, or anything a recipe may call for. The main reason: to assure a healthy diet free of harmful components.