When I first went back to school to get my master’s in Nutrition, I was shocked to find one of the first questions I would hear from my friends and peers was “so does corn have any nutrients or not?”
I had no idea this was such a pressing question! As I thought about it, it makes sense. I was mostly hearing this question from my fellow Latinos. With the importance of corn in Latin American food and the low-carb craze, it makes sense that this was a burning question!
The answer, of course, is that corn has plenty of nutrients.
More than that, how we treat corn in Latin American food to make foods like tortillas is a unique process called nixtamalization. This process makes corn even more nutritious and is one of the top nutrition secrets that makes Mexican food so healthy!
If you’ve ever wondered about this yourself, this blog post will amaze you! We’ll learn all about the process of nixtamalization, the unique benefits it adds to Mexican food, and how it’s used in Mexican cuisine.
So let’s dive in!
What is Nixtamalization?
Nixtamalization is the process of soaking a grain in an alkaline solution to loosen the outer layer of the grain.
Technically, any grain food can be nixtamalized, but when we say nixtamal we are almost always referring to corn. This softens the corn kernels, makes them easier to grind, and adds a lot of nutritional value, as well!
The end product of this step is hominy (“nixtamal” in Nahuatl or “maíz pozolero” in Spanish). It may be eaten as is, like in pozole. Or, if you take this nixtamal and grind it, you have masa that can be used to make corn tortillas, arepas, tamales, etc.
How we get from corn to nixtamal
To make nixtamal, we start with dried corn kernels. The corn kernels are briefly boiled and then soaked for several hours in an alkaline solution.
In Mexican and Central American food, it’s typically calcium hydroxide (also called “lime”–not the fruit– or “cal”) that’s used to make this solution. However, in North American Indigenous food, wood ash may be more commonly used.
After the corn kernels have soaked in this solution for several hours, you have nixtamal. Yes, it’s that simple!
You could stop here and make pozole–this is my favorite use for homemade nixtamal!
However, to make corn tortillas there are a few more steps involved. To make masa (corn dough), the hominy is partially rinsed.
Different producers will vary how much they rinse the nixtamal as this removes some of the pericarp (outer layer/skin) from the corn kernels. This will affect the final moisture content of the masa. So different makers and different recipes call for different levels of rinsing.
Next, it’s time to grind the nixtamal into masa. In a commercial setting, this is usually done with an electric molino (mill). In home settings, this could be done in with a hand grinder or, in a pinch, a food processor.
Most traditionally, this step was performed in a metate. However, this is very difficult physical labor and not recommended for day-to-day cooking.
While grinding, some water may be added until the right texture of masa is achieved.
Finally, the corn has gone from corn to nixtamal to masa. It’s ready to be made into corn tortillas, or tamales. Or, the masa could be dried and turned into masa harina, a sort of nixtamalized corn flour.
The process of adding lime or wood ash to corn is found in Indigenous cuisine across the Americas, and originated in Mexico and Central America.
Tools used to grind corn, such as a metate, have been found in Guatemela dating back to 1500 B.C. Researchers suspect this is around the time and place nixtamalization began (1).
While this process was known across the Americas, it’s mostly associated with Aztec and Maya civilizations in Mexico and Central America.
Other societies may not have relied as heavily on nixtamalized corn, but typically these societies had other staple carbohydrates in their diets. This is the case with the Inca civilization, which mostly used maize in the form of beer, and relied heavily on potatoes for starchy foods.
Use in Mexican Cuisine
Nixtamalized corn is the backbone of Mexican food. In fact, the Nahuatl language divides food into three main categories: tortillas, tamales, and everything else (2).
In addition to the nutritional benefits (more on that below), this process creates a signature flavor and scent that we associate with corn tortillas.
Traditional dishes that use Nixtamal
Nixtamal is used in most of your favorite Mexican staples. Below are some Mexican dishes made with it:
- Corn tortillas: flat breads made from masa harina
- Tamales: masa stuffed with filling and steamed in corn husks or banana leaves
- Atole: warm drink made from masa
- Pozole: stew featuring hominy
- Sopes: thick masa cakes topped with beans, meat, etc.
- Tlacoyos: thin and crispy masa
Other dishes from across the Americas made with nixtamal include:
- Hominy grits
Health Benefits of Nixtamal
It can be difficult to get definitive information on the exact nutrient content of nixtamal, because so much of it depends on how long it was soaked for, and the type of corn used, among other factors.
To start looking at the nutrition of nixtamal, let’s look at the typical nutrient content of hominy, which as we learned earlier is what we get after nixtamalizing dried corn kernels.
Nutrition facts Hominy
One cup of canned hominy has (3):
|Nutrient||Content||% daily needs (based on average adult woman)|
It’s worth noting that different processing methods and times can affect the final nutrient content. This table may not accurately reflect the content of vitamin B3 and calcium, in particular. More on that below!
Effect on vitamin/mineral content
Nixtamalization increases availability of certain nutrients.
The most famous of these examples is vitamin B3 (Niacin). Corn is typically rich in vitamin B3, but most of it is not readily available to the body. The nixtamalization process, however, releases the vitamin B3 and makes it easier to absorb (4).
This has made a big difference throughout history! Societies that have relied on corn as a staple but skipped nixtamalization have faced very high rates of pellagra (a niacin-deficiency disease) But this was never the case in Latin America, where nixtamalization was the norm (5).
This process also affects calcium content. Soaking the corn kernels in calcium hydroxide increases calcium, and can make corn tortillas a good source of calcium (6). Total calcium content would depend on soaking time, and varies across manufacturers.
Resistant starch is a type of carbohydrate that resist digestion, instead fermenting and feeding healthy gut bacteria. Resistant starch may help manage blood sugar, promote gut health, and decrease cholesterol thanks to this unique action.
How to Cook with Nixtamal
Tips for cooking with Nixtamal
It’s not as common to make your own nixtamal at home anymore. However, the process is relatively simple and easy to do at home.
What’s more complicated is grinding the nixtamal into masa, which typically requires specialized equipment.
For beginners, I recommend starting with making nixtamal for pozole. This way, you don’t have to worry about grinding.
Where to find Nixtamal and how to prepare it
You only need two ingredients to make nixtamal: dried corn kernels and lime (calcium hydroxide, not the fruit). You can find both of these at your local Hispanic grocer. The lime will be found in the spice aisle and may be called “cal”.
In general, the process involves adding calcium hydroxide to water, bringing it to a boil, adding the corn kernels, boiling for 20 minutes, then removing from heat, covering, and soaking for several hours.
For a complete pozole recipe that walks you through nixtamalizing your own corn, check out this pozole verde recipe by Masienda.
Shopping for nixtamalized corn products
If you’re not looking to make your own from scratch, you can reap the benefits of nixtamal from common ingredients such as corn tortillas. Most corn tortillas on the market are nixtamalized. But if you’re not sure, check the ingredient label and look for one of the following words: lime, calcium hydroxide, or cal.
Nixtamal vs masa vs masa harina
It’s easy to confuse nixtamal, masa, and masa harina. All of these products have undergone the nixtamalization process, but there are some differences that can affect which you want to cook with.
Nixtamal refers to the corn kernels that have been soaked in the alkaline solution.
Masa is the ground nixtamal formed into a dough.
Masa harina is fine ground, dried masa. This is what your average consumer has in their homes today.
Nixtamal is one of the foundational ingredients of Mexican food. This ancient process not only softens the corn, but increases its nutritional value.
Nixtamalized corn generally has more resistant starch, more calcium, and more available vitamin B3 than fresh corn.
While not all corn you eat needs to be nixtamalized, this process is uniquely nutritious and holds a lot of benefits.
If you’ve ever found yourself feeling like you should cut out corn tortillas for your health, rest assured that corn tortillas are a very nutritious food, thanks to the nixtamalization process.
Here at Nutrition con Sabor, we believe that our heritage foods are unique and deserve to be celebrated for their nutrition benefits. For more help building balanced meals with your favorite heritage foods, check out my free 5-day Latino meal planner. Sign up below to get your copy!