Tacos, tlayudas, tamales—what do all of them have in widespread? It’s corn! Whereas extremely versatile as soon as cooked, corn (maize, or maíz in Spanish) in its uncooked type isn’t digestible by the human physique on account of its excessive ranges of cellulose, a sort of insoluble fiber. That is the place la magia (the magic) of nixtamalization comes into play.
Nixtamalization is an historic Mesoamerican culinary approach1 that includes cooking uncooked corn kernels in alkalized water, turning them right into a digestible, delicate, flavorful corn dough. The method additionally unlocks a lot of corn’s important vitamins. Nixtamalization has performed a key position in Mexican delicacies for 1000’s of years (Mesoamericans are mentioned to have found it in 1500 BC), however it’s each time-consuming and taxing to constantly execute at house, and one of many the explanation why this culinary approach has been misplaced within the combine for a lot of in the previous couple of many years. However that is about to vary: Quite a few new ready-to-eat client merchandise starring authentically made nixtamalized corn—from tortillas and tortilla chips to dehydrated masa flour—might be cropping (!) up on retailer cabinets in 2024 to make its many perks simply and conveniently obtainable to shoppers nationwide.
A fast primer on the science of nixtamalization: The method begins by cooking whole-kernel corn in an alkaline (pH higher than seven) resolution product of water plus calcium hydroxide, wooden ash, or culinary limestone powder (generally known as “cal”) for no less than six to 12 hours. This course of removes the outermost layer of corn and modifications the chemistry of the within flesh, leading to corn dough that’s softer, extra nutrient-dense, and richer in taste; it will also be dehydrated and become flour. “Nixtamalization enhances corn’s earthy, subtly candy notes and yields a extra malleable masa that’s smoother and extra palatable,” says Julio Chavez, govt chef at La Marea at Viceroy Riviera Maya, noting why the restaurant goes to nice lengths to middle a lot of its recipes round nixtamalized corn-based dishes.
Nixtamalization is a key discovery in human historical past for securing wealthy and dense vitamin in folks’s diets; the approach was doubtless important for sustaining civilizations through the pre-Columbian period, as corn was—and nonetheless is—the muse of a nutritious weight-reduction plan for a lot of. “Nutritionally, nixtamalization enhances the bioavailability of niacin2, vitamin B3, serving to to forestall pellagra [a disease caused by a severe deficiency of niacin]. It additionally will increase the calcium content material, which is useful for bone well being, and promotes the supply of sure amino acids, like tryptophan,” says Dalina Soto, MA, RD, LDN, registered dietitian and founding father of Your Latina Nutritionist.
But, the disadvantage has at all times been clear: Nixtamalization is an arduous, prolonged course of to execute. And in Mexican tradition, it’s a process that’s usually absorbed by the matriarch of the household, notably the abuelita (grandmother), says Sarah Portnoy, PhD, a professor within the Latinx Meals Research and Meals Justice Division of Latin American and Iberian Cultures on the College of Southern California and producer of the documentary, Abuelita’s Kitchen: Mexican Meals Tales. Whereas some cooks in Mexico are nonetheless making nixtamalized masa at house, the apply hasn’t been as prevalent because it as soon as was because of the industrialization of the tortilla-making business that started within the Eighties. Within the years following, many nixtamalized corn-based merchandise had been changed with merchandise made primarily from corn flour (or floor, complete corn kernels that haven’t been cooked in cal). Whereas corn flour lacks a number of the vitamin and depth of taste nixtamalized flour affords, it’s certainly simpler to provide.
“Because the world bought busier and as modernization began to occur, [Mexican consumers] began to transition away from nixtamalization, and swiftly we had been shopping for [non-nixtamalized] tortillas from the grocery retailer,” says Hector Saldivar, the CEO and founding father of Tia Lupita, a Mexican-founded meals model that launched nixtamalized corn merchandise to its lineup in 2020. And as corn tortillas and different Mexican meals staples grew to become extra accessible stateside, demand for them continued to develop, too—proper alongside the inhabitants of Mexican-Individuals dwelling within the U.S. At this time, the American tortilla business is valued at $6.4 billion, and based on Future Market Insights, the corn flour market is anticipated to succeed in a valuation of $34.5 billion by 2033, up from $19.3 billion in 2023.
Demographic shifts have caused a shift in style, permitting for the return of nixtamalized corn. “With Latines making up almost 20 % of the U.S. inhabitants, and greater than $3 trillion in buying energy, our [Mexican] tastes have quickly develop into mainstream, and masa is not any exception inside this shift,” says Jorge Gaviria, the founding father of heritage masa model Masienda and the James Beard Award-nominated writer of Masa. As such, a number of meals manufacturers—particularly these with Mexican roots and deep cultural ties to nixtamalization—at the moment are that includes nixtamalized corn as a essential ingredient of their merchandise regardless of the additional effort concerned in getting ready it.
Surprisingly, nixtamalization is “very scalable,” says Andrés Figueroa, vice-president of culinary, innovation & high quality at Siete Meals, a Mexican-American meals model based in 2014 that began promoting nixtamalized corn chips (aka totopos) earlier this yr. As an alternative of cooking and steeping corn in pots, for instance, he says Siete makes use of massive tanks; grinding stones are machine-powered to undergo 1000’s of kilos of corn per hour. “This technique nonetheless yields the identical pliable, heat dough that one would receive via guide grinding with a metate—the OG flat mortar and pestle stone software used handy grind the nixtamalized corn,” Figueroa says. “It takes much more time, extra eyes on the method, and extra effort to organize our chips this fashion versus mixing corn flour with water, however we see it as price the associated fee and well worth the effort—as we really feel it yields a extra flavorful, extra genuine totopo.”
The additional labor and time, plus the particular look after ingredient sourcing, has had some implications for Masienda’s ambition to scale its nixtamalized merchandise, says Gaviria. “The true problem in scaling to bigger markets comes a lot sooner than the nixtamal course of. It begins with the corn. No different producer of masa harina is utilizing heirloom corn from Mexico, so we needed to basically construct a provide chain the place there wasn’t one, and we did it one farmer at a time,” he says. Since Masienda’s farming companions develop very specialised, non-standardized (aka non-hybridized, non-GMO) product, this can lead to decrease yields (which in flip drives up costs). That greater than something could make the top product a bit costlier: Masienda’s Heirloom White Corn Masa Harina is on the market at just below $8 per 2.2-pound bag at Complete Meals Market, whereas different manufacturers’ white corn masa usually promote for $4 to $6 per bag.
“Industrializing nixtamalization is definitely the simple half from a value perspective; nonetheless, discovering high quality corn that’s natural and non-GMO is what drives the prices up,” agrees Tia Lupita’s Saldivar.
However Gaviria argues that the improved taste and authenticity of nixtamalized merchandise make the associated fee distinction nicely price it. “There may be intrinsically extra labor that goes into cultivating and caring from the plant from seed to cob, however that additionally equates to extra taste, extra genetic and biodiversity safety, and extra impression,” he says. “We’re taking that labor on so different folks can have entry to a extra readily-usable product that’s extra nutritious—because of the approach we course of it—with higher sourcing and manufacturing.”
The founders of those manufacturers finally agree the advantages of maintaining this culinary custom alive, maximizing corn’s potential well being advantages, and showcasing the ingredient’s fullest style outweigh any of the manufacturing hurdles they could encounter. And, evidently, these concerted efforts are paying off—world nixtamalized corn flour gross sales are on observe for a $3.2 million valuation this yr, and are projected to succeed in $5.3 million over the subsequent decade.
A bushel of nixtamalized corn-based meals have already made headway out there, with manufacturers like Tia Lupita, Masienda, Siete Meals, and Vista Hermosa main the cost. In 2020, Tia Lupita launched its Cactus Corn Masa Tortillas, a mixture of high-fiber nopales (cactus) and nixtamalized corn made into ready-to-eat tortillas. In October 2023, the model closed a $2.6 million seed spherical, fully raised by two main Mexican buyers within the meals and beverage sector, Santatera Capital and GBM Ventures. “Having the assist of my very own nation is the final word validation of authenticity and signal of approval that what we’re doing is exhibiting Mexico, our tradition, and our meals within the highest regard,” Saldivar says.
Tia Lupita scored extra stateside assist after receiving a $500,000 funding from Kevin O’Leary on the tv sequence Shark Tank earlier this yr. Saldivar notes that the model’s tortilla enterprise is up 3 % year-to-date (YTD), and the staff is projecting even increased revenues in 2024 as Tia Lupita expands into new markets. “Distribution via a significant retailer, Walmart, is projected to extend Tia Lupita’s development exponentially within the coming yr. The staff is worked up to have the ability to deliver genuine tortillas to the lots,” he says.
In the meantime, Masienda has grown into a number one eight-figure nixtamalized corn firm within the U.S. since its 2014 launch. The model focuses on masa harina, heirloom corn, single-origin substances, and cookware (like tortilla presses and molcajetes), all sourced from Mexico. Masienda’s enlargement is substantial: The corporate launched a line of long-anticipated Heirloom Blue and White Corn Masa Harina merchandise nationwide in Complete Meals this September, and Gaviria notes that this marks just the start of the corporate’s development in retail shops nationwide. “There are numerous brick-and-mortar retailers which might be coming to observe [our expansion into Whole Foods Markets], which is a very massive deal for us,” Gaviria says.
To that finish, in Masienda’s 2022 Sourcing Report, the corporate outlined its dedication to supporting native Mexican suppliers amid rising client demand. “We now have grown our partnerships with farming communities, artisans, and suppliers throughout Mexico, in addition to devoted ourselves to deepening and strengthening the prevailing relationships which have enabled our development up to now,” Gaviria says. At this time, Masienda focuses on shopping for solely surplus stock from Mexican heirloom corn suppliers with the intention to preserve native markets—and the communities that rely on them—steady. “Our position is to not dictate what’s grown, however reasonably to open up market alternatives for individuals who would in any other case lack choices for his or her obtainable surplus.” Final yr alone, Masienda put $1.2 million price of its funding funding towards assist for small-scale agriculture and family-owned companies in Mexico.
Siete Meals launched its first-ever nixtamalized corn product line February: Maíz Totopos, three scrumptious forms of nixtamalized corn chips. “We created Siete Maíz Totopos to spotlight a heritage ingredient, corn, and honor the method of nixtamalization, an historic approach that has been a part of our Mexican tradition for generations,” says Veronica Garza, co-founder, president, and chief innovation officer of Siete Meals. “We’re so proud to share this a part of our historical past and convey much more folks to the desk with better-for-you corn tortilla chips.” Miguel Garza, co-founder and CEO of Siete Meals provides that buyers can’t get sufficient: “The response has been extremely encouraging and we stay up for introducing extra heritage-inspired merchandise within the months to return,” Garza says.
Vista Hermosa, the offshoot CPG model of the favored East Coast-based taco chain Tacombi that launched in 2015, sells freshly-made Nixtamalized Natural Corn Tortillas and Nixtamalized Totopos that relaunched with new-and-improved flavors in September. Trying forward, Tacombi plans to open 75 new areas throughout the U.S. within the subsequent 5 years, guaranteeing that extra restaurant-goers across the nation get a style of genuine nixtamalization. In the meantime, Vista Hermosa doubled its enterprise in 2022 and is now obtainable in additional than 2,000 retail shops across the nation.
Though these ready-to-eat corn merchandise aren’t by any means a alternative for making nixtamalized corn flour or different meals at house—which is, with out query, essentially the most authentically scrumptious option to do it—they’re a approach for folk to get a style of the true deal, particularly when far-off from house, within the type of ready-to-eat merchandise that do not require hours of labor to organize for the patron. “There are numerous Mexican meals that haven’t made it throughout the border [into the U.S.] but, and we, at Tia Lupita, need to be the conduit to introduce folks to a few of these meals,” says Saldivar. “It’s important to supply a nixtamalized corn product within the U.S. with the intention to preserve our traditions alive and present our authenticity.” As such, Saldivar acknowledges the additional effort and assets this culinary approach calls are past worthwhile and assist him obtain his final objective to protect and convey nixtamalization to the lots.
In 2024, nixtamalized corn merchandise will proceed to pop in varied kinds in varied kinds past simply tortillas and flour. Gaviria says that Masienda has an array of thrilling retail grocery launches on faucet that “characterize the expansion the model—and all the nixtamalized corn market—is poised for.” Simply launched in October: Masienda’s Tamal Equipment (a bundle that yields roughly 50 tamales to offer you a leg up on planning a tamalada, or tamale-making get together), in addition to a Champurrado Combine, a heat, chocolate-y, masa-based Mexican beverage; simply in time for this vacation season. Over at Tia Lupita’s, Saldivar says plans are within the works to include its nixtamalized masa into extra of its merchandise within the upcoming yr. Vista Hermosa additionally plans on constructing upon its present lineup of genuine tortillas, totopos, and frozen burritos “with an thrilling new line extension,” says Dario Wolos, the CEO and founding father of Vista Hermosa and Tacombi. “In 2024, we’ll even be rising retailer distribution throughout the nation, to make sure extra households have entry to our Mexican pantry staples,” Wolos says.
The fast development of recent nixtamalized merchandise hitting the market subsequent yr marks the end result of innovation, custom, and comfort for a lot of Mexican-American culinary specialists. “I believe that [homemade versus not-homemade nixtamalized products] each have a spot in at the moment’s world. We do not have to choose one over the opposite. If you may make your individual masa, do it. If you need to purchase it pre-made, do this. There isn’t a hierarchy,” Soto says.
Be ready to be a-maize-d by the large strides the nixtamalized corn market is poised to make subsequent yr. From ready-to-eat tortillas to dehydrated corn masa for making DIY tamales and sopes, this historic approach might be maintaining our pantries and fridges fully-stalked (pun meant) for hundreds of years to return.
Store Nixtamalized Corn Merchandise
Tia Lupita Cactus + Corn Tortilla – $28
Masienda Heirloom White Corn Masa Harina – $12
Masienda Heirloom Blue Corn Masa Harina – $103
Siete Maíz Totopos Corn Tortilla Chips – $36
Masienda Doña Rosa Tortilla Press – $95
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- Serna-Saldivar, Sergio O. Corn Chemistry and Know-how. 1st ed., Woodhead Publishing and AACC Worldwide Press, 2019. pp. 469-500.
- Acosta-Estrada, Beatriz A et al. “Dietary evaluation of nixtamalized maize tortillas produced from dry masa flour, landraces, and excessive yield hybrids and varieties.” Frontiers in vitamin vol. 10 1183935. 6 Jul. 2023, doi:10.3389/fnut.2023.1183935