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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Chemical with corn

Tamale from Radical Eats, Houston, TX
The US has a federal holiday commemorating Christopher Columbus, the alleged "discoverer" of the new word (although I think the ever sharp Oatmeal skewers this historical figure quite effectively). For what it's worth, a consequence of the contact is the transfer of crops from the New World to the Old, spreading them far, and change cuisines worldwide. The tomato transformed Italian cooking, for example, but another effect is that nutrient dense crops quickly became the main source of nutrition in poorer parts of Europe. Modern readers with computers may find it hard to believe, but there was a time that people literally had nothing more than corn to eat. The quick growing and human adapted corn (maize) gave rise to dishes like polenta, solving potential starvation issues.

But along with the rise of this monophagous (single sourced) diet came the spread of a disease: pellagra. Patients stricken had skin lesions, dementia, and, given the medical care at the time, died soon after. Primitive epidemiology tracked the problem to primarily corn eating populations. Perhaps it was contamination or some kind of pathogen in the corn. Pellagra reached epidemic proportions in the heavily corn consuming poor people of the southern USA.

Roasted sweet corn in a cup (elotes) at Max's Wine Dive, Houston, TX
We now know that pellagra wasn't caused by pathogen, it's a micronutrient deficiency in the vitamin niacin. What was confounding at the time, however, was that mesoamerican people also lived on a primarily corn-based diet, and yet had practically no incidence of pellagra. The key, as it turns out, was nixtamalization. The process of soaking maize in slaked lime - calcium hydroxide - well, basically most any alkali will work - made the naicin bioavailable, and also released the amino acid precursor tryptophan. The resulting maize is the basis for hominy and masa -- and all derivative dishes thereof, from antojitos to tortilla chips.

So, if you find yourself worried that your food "contains chemicals", "chemically processed", or involved things that cannot be pronounced easily - consider the history of maize in the Western diet. While one of the most genetically modified crops in human history, the link to pellagra, as it turns out, was insufficient technology.

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