• Tech Tech

Researchers unravel ancient process that tamed one of humanity's most important foods: 'Just think about the impact'

Beyond improved digestibility and taste, this process prevents nutrient deficiencies that can cause severe malnutrition over time.

Beyond improved digestibility and taste, this process prevents nutrient deficiencies that can cause severe malnutrition over time.

Photo Credit: iStock

From tiny grass to mighty maize, Indigenous science transformed one of our culinary staples.

For thousands of years, Indigenous cultivators meticulously nurtured humble teosinte grass into one of humanity's most important crops: corn. Without their innovative preparation methods, however, this global staple remains difficult to digest and can even cause illness.

Maize's natural resilience helped it spread rapidly across the world after its domestication in Mexico over 9,000 years ago. But a crucial step was missing in modern processing: an ancient technique called nixtamalization. The lost art of nixtamalization makes corn fully nutritious and safe to eat in large quantities by altering its cellular structure.

So, how does it work? The process infuses corn kernels with mineral-rich water or ash to neutralize toxins and release essential nutrients sealed within rigid cell walls. Then, the outer hulls are rinsed off, leaving behind supercharged maize that's more delicious, more nutritious, and easier to grind or cook.

Beyond improved digestibility and taste, nixtamalization prevents nutrient deficiencies that can cause severe malnutrition over time, supplementing calcium, niacin, fiber, and iron. In fact, when unprocessed corn became a dietary staple during the early 20th century, pellagra outbreaks claimed thousands of lives across the U.S. annually.

Today, nixtamalized masa and tortillas are beloved in Mexican and Central American cuisine. But before Spanish colonization, the protective powers of nixtamalization fueled maize-centric cultures across North and South America. Despite the technique's roots predating Aztec civilization, its Nahuatl name endures.

Luckily, with artisan nixtamalized corn gaining popularity worldwide, more people can enjoy safer, more nutritious corn-based dishes. Plus, honoring Indigenous wisdom through ancient techniques like this connects us to the unsung scientists who engineered the world's most successful cereal crop.

"Maize is the most widely grown grain in the world," food scientist Bill Schindler told WIRED. "Just think about the impact that nixtamalizing every single kernel of it would have on our food supply." Nutrient availability would skyrocket without expanding land use, helping to sustainably feed more people as the global population balloons.

As global demand for corn rises exponentially, could rediscovering Indigenous food science be the secret sauce to nourish all without sacrificing forests? Either way, the next time you bite into a chip or taco, consider raising your glass to the anonymous agricultural innovators who made that crispy, mouthwatering experience possible.

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