Corn and Beans-a nutritional powerhouse with nixtamalization

Apr 21, 2020

Tortillas and dry beans are having a boom as people scramble to fill larders with healthy, easily-stored food during the pandemic. The ancient knowledge about their nutritional value has waxed and waned through various times in history. It’s great that corn and beans are flying off the shelves in Berks. I wonder if today’s tortilla and bean buyers know the secret of their value.

I learned about corn and beans in 1978 as a student at Penn State, in State College, PA. I joined a food co-op which stocked all manner of basic foods from dry grains, beans and pastas to oils, nuts and nut butters, and soy products like tofu and miso. It was great: For a few hours of work exchange per month, co-op members got high quality whole food for very low prices. We cooked corn and beans all the time. I still do. Today, I grow plenty of both as long as the deer and ground hogs don’t get them.

We knew about the nutritional value of various grains and legumes because the book Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe outlined simple guidelines for a healthy, inexpensive, protein rich, mostly vegetarian diet. The premise of the book was that that when grains, legumes and dairy based proteins are combined, they form amino acids that are very easy to metabolize and the combination yields more protein than each food by itself. These combinations form the basis of many traditional cuisines around the world. So, if you combine any grain (rice, corn, wheat, barley) with any legume (peas, beans, lentils) you get a complete protein. Same with grains and milk, same with seeds or nuts and legumes.

That means that a peanut butter (legume) and jelly sandwich on wheat bread (grain) is actually protein rich! So is whole grain cereal with milk. So is hummus with pita or chips. So is yogurt with nuts or sunflower seeds. So is corn and beans.

But there is one more magic trick and if you know me, you know that it involves fermentation. Take any of these already valuable foods and ferment them and you get a large increase in nutritional value and flavor. When corn was first brought from the new world to Europe as a staple in the 1900’s, indigenous civilizations knew something the European explorers missed: all of their corn was fermented in a process called nixtamalization. Corn kernels were fermented overnight in an alkaline water solution made from wood ash. The wood ash contained lye and lime (calcium hydroxide.) This process resulted in corn that was protein and nutrient rich. In Europe and the United States, corn was not nixtamalized and pellegra (niacin deficiency) epidemics soared. Some settlers in the southern United States did pay attention: hominy is the name of the fermented corn that settlers learned to make from the native Algonquians.

Today, compare the nutrition labels of a can of corn and can of hominy to see how much more nutritious the fermented corn is. Do the same with tortillas: the fermented ones will list ‘lime” as an ingredient.

Did you know that we had a tortilla factory in Reading? El Ranchito was located in the 400 block of North Sixth Street. The factory closed after a fire in 2018 but the owners are hoping to re-open soon. For now, buy tortillas across the street at our wonderful grocery store, El Puente.

For gardeners growing your own, I recommend growing Scarlet Runner beans and Floriani Red dent corn. They are both easy to grow, very prolific, great for long term storage and best of all, totally delicious. Throw in some squash and you have a Three Sisters garden, and that’s all you really need.

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All photos courtesy of Karen

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