Summer is a time of year that most folks really look forward to and for many a good reason: clear skies, warm sunny days, outdoor recreation, garden fresh vegetables and for some folks, like me, love the abundance of fresh corn.
Since the colonization of the Americas beginning in 1492 when Christopher Columbus “discovered” the new world, corn [know to us in Mexico as maize] has become a favorite food for millions of people world wide — from the Americas to Europe, to Africa, to India and China. Corn/maize is one of Mexico’s great gifts to the world.
Maize had been a stable of the indigenous people of the Americas for millennia and remains so even today. The pilgrim settlers in North America and the Conquistadors in Central and South America all eagerly adopted maize into their diet and sent maize back to their homeland where it soon became a favorite. Corn was a welcomed most everywhere — eatable by humans and animals alike.
Corn as we know it today would not exist if it weren't for the peoples of Mesoamerica [Mexico] that cultivated and developed it. Corn is a human invention, a plant that does not exist naturally in the wild. Some estimates are that people living in central Mexico developed maize at least 7000 years ago. It was cultivated from a wild grass called teosinte. Different from our stains of maize and sweet corn today, the kernels of teosinte were small and spaced far apart.
From Mexico maize spread north to the Southwestern United States and south all the way down the coast of Peru. About 1000 years ago, as Mesoamerican people migrated north to the eastern woodlands of present day North America, they brought maize with them. The first “Thanksgiving” in North America was celebrated in 1621 and while contemporary dishes like sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie were not on the menu, Indian corn/maize certainly was.
The Native Americans, Aztecs, Mayans, Incas and others taught the new arrivals from Europe how to plant corn and the many ways in which corn could be prepared — from simple popcorn, to hominy, to corn bread baked in clay ovens, to tortillas, tamales and more. Not to mention the alcoholic beverage chichi, otherwise known in English as moonshine. Corn was fantastic.
The indigenous people showed the settlers how to prepare the corn before turning it into a dough by first soaking it in lime water [North American Indians used wood ash water] — then rinsing the corn before grinding it into corn mash. This process came to be known as Nixtamalizacion [in English Nixtamalization]. However, for the Europeans the process of Nixtamalization seemed all to unnecessary. After all what good did it do? Nixtamalization was probably just another superstition of those uncivilized people. Or was it?
What happened next is one of those untold tragedies in history. Corn became a staple diet for many people is parts of Europe, Africa, India and China, but without first undergoing the process of nixtamalization. The result was the development, on-mass, of a life threatening disease called pellagra, caused by a chronic lack of niacin [vitamin B] in the diet. A deficiency of the amino acid lysine in the body can lead to a deficiency of niacin, thus leading to pellagra causing extreme suffering and even death. This is the risk one takes when eating a corn-based diet that has not been nixtamalized.
Kwashiorkor is another such disease potentially brought on by eating a corn based diet of non-nixtamalized corn. Kwashiorkor rarely occurs in developed nations but is often found in African countries, especially among children, where a balanced diet is hard to get.
Because pellagra outbreaks occurred in European countries where maize had become a dominant food crop, the belief for centuries was that the corn either carried a toxic substance or was a carrier of disease. Later, the lack of pellagra outbreaks in Mesoamerica where maize is a major food crop, led researchers to investigate the process of nixtamalization.
In the 17th century physicians in Spain prepared the first documents studying a major outbreak of pellagra [then called Asturian leprosy]. In Italy the disease had become endemic and it was there that it was named pelle agra [pelle = skin; agra = sour]. The symptoms of pellagra sufferers included high sensitivity to sunlight, aggression, dermatitis, and inflammation of the skin, lesions, insomnia, weakness, confusion, paralysis of extremities, diarrhea, dilated cardiomyopathy and dementia. If not treated properly pellagra often led to death.
In the early 1900s pellagra deaths in South Carolina, USA numbered 1,306 during the first ten months of 1915; 100,000 Southerners were affected with pellagra in 1916. At that time the medical community believed that a germ, or some unknown toxin in corn caused pellagra. The Spartanburg Pellagra Hospital in Spartanburg, South Carolina was America’s first facility dedicated to discovering the cause of pellagra. It was established in 1914 with a special congressional appropriation to the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) and set up primarily for research. In 1915, Joseph Goldberg, assigned to study pellagra by the Surgon General of the United States, showed pellagra was linked to diet by inducing the disease in prisoners, using the Spartanburg Pellagra Hospital as his clinic.
Goldberger experimented on eleven prisoners. Before the experiment, the prisoners were eating fruits and vegetables from the prison garden. Goldberger started feeding them only corn [non-nixtamalized corn]. About two weeks into the experiment, the prisoners complained of headaches, confusion, and loss of appetite. In the third week, seven of the eleven inmates broke out with pellagra. Goldberger cured them, feeding them fruits and vegetables again. However, he failed to identify a specific element [niacin] whose absence caused the pellagra. Goldberger continued his work, but died without discovering the cause.
So it wasn’t an old Aztec superstition after all, but it took modern scientists and doctors from the 15th century until the 20th century to figure out that people who ate a non-nixtamalized corn based diet were in a high risk group for getting pellagra.
How did my ancestors in Mesoamerica figure out the benefits of nixtamalization more than 7000 years ago? They had no scientific methods or instruments that we have today, so how did they do it? We may never know. But today we do know how and why nixtamalization works.
When ash or lime is mixed in water it creates an alkaline solution that interacts chemically with corn. This interaction frees up essential amino acids and niacin that would otherwise be locked in the curnals of corn. Thus instead of a corn based diet depriving the body of niacin, the corn based diet of nixtamalized corn actually provides niacin and essential amino acids to the body providing for a basis of good health. In countries like mine where people eat nixtamalized corn nobody gets pellagra or kwashiorkor diseases.
How about you, what type of corn do you eat or put on the table for your family? In Mexico we only eat nixtamalized maize and nixtamalized maize products. Even processed junk food manufacturers only use nixtamalized maize in Mexico.
Should nixtamalizing corn seem a little daunting, you might pick up a bag of masa harina (nixtamalized corn flour) from the grocery store - you’ll find it in the Mexican food section. Make sure to check the sell-by date on the bag and buy the freshest you can find. If you are living in the USA try the Masa Brosa brand (available at Hannaford stores) - it has a nice corn flavor, mixes in a snap and also makes terrific tortillas.
But wait there’s more. Although I love corn and I think it is one of the most wonderful and delicious foods in the world, still I have to say that all that is corn [even nixtamalized corn] isn’t good corn.
Corn is everywhere these days — grown on every continent except Antarctica, planted on 93 million acres of land in the United States alone, and finding its way into nearly everything on the dinner table world wide, the humble corn plant of my country may just be the most influential crop that society has ever seen.
Corn and its byproducts are in everything from canned fruits to antifreeze, body lotion to car batteries, margarine to magazines and it is basically all poison, especially if you are eating it in the form of Genetically Modified Corn [GMC] and corn fructose. Either way if you are eating GMC or corn fructose you are basically putting slow poison into your body. It’s in everything these days. It’s as though society had a death wish to commit suicide by eating GMC, corn fructose and for that matter any kind of Genetically Modified Food [GMF]. Ever hear of obesity? Well all fingers point to corn fructose as the leading cause. And cancer? Follow the GMF food chain and at the other end you will find a host of cancer patients.
But don’t just take my word for it. Spend a little time and do some research, do your homework. Self-discovery, as I call it, makes for a lasting impression.
Okay, I have said my piece. Eat healthy and live long. Adios amigos!
Note: Embed this video; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pcan7L4azWc