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Nixtamalized Corn Will Soon Stalk up Your Pantry Shelves

Tacos, tlayudas, tamales—what do they all have in common? It’s corn! While incredibly versatile once cooked, corn (maize, or maíz in Spanish) in its raw form isn’t digestible by the human body due to its high levels of cellulose, a type of insoluble fiber. This is where la magia (the magic) of nixtamalization comes into play. 

Nixtamalization is an ancient Mesoamerican culinary technique that involves cooking raw corn kernels in alkalized water, turning them into a digestible, soft, flavorful corn dough. The process also unlocks many of corn's essential nutrients. Nixtamalization has played a key role in Mexican cuisine for thousands of years (Mesoamericans are said to have discovered it in 1500 BC), but it is both time-consuming and taxing to consistently execute at home, and one of the reasons why this culinary technique has been lost in the mix for many in the last few decades. But that's about to change: A number of new ready-to-eat consumer products starring authentically made nixtamalized corn—from tortillas and tortilla chips to dehydrated masa flour—will be cropping (!) up on store shelves in 2024 to make its many perks easily and conveniently available to consumers nationwide.

A quick primer on the science of nixtamalization: The process starts by cooking whole-kernel corn in an alkaline (pH greater than seven) solution made of water plus calcium hydroxide, wood ash, or culinary limestone powder (known as “cal”) for a minimum of six to 12 hours. This process removes the outermost layer of corn and changes the chemistry of the inside flesh, resulting in corn dough that is softer, more nutrient-dense, and richer in flavor; it can also be dehydrated and turned into flour. “Nixtamalization enhances corn’s earthy, subtly sweet notes and yields a more malleable masa that’s smoother and more palatable,” says Julio Chavez, executive chef at La Marea at Viceroy Riviera Maya, noting why the restaurant goes to great lengths to center many of its recipes around nixtamalized corn-based dishes.

Nixtamalization is a key discovery in human history for securing rich and dense nutrition in people’s diets; the technique was likely essential for sustaining civilizations during the pre-Columbian era, as corn was—and still is—the foundation of a nutritious diet for many. “Nutritionally, nixtamalization enhances the bioavailability of niacin, vitamin B3, helping to prevent pellagra [a disease caused by a severe deficiency of niacin]. It also increases the calcium content, which is beneficial for bone health, and promotes the availability of certain amino acids, like tryptophan,” says Dalina Soto, MA, RD, LDN, registered dietitian and founder of Your Latina Nutritionist

Yet, the drawback has always been clear: Nixtamalization is an arduous, lengthy process to execute. And in Mexican culture, it’s a task that’s often absorbed by the matriarch of the family, particularly the abuelita (grandmother), says Sarah Portnoy, PhD, a professor in the Latinx Food Studies and Food Justice Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures at the University of Southern California and producer of the documentary, Abuelita’s Kitchen: Mexican Food Stories. While some cooks in Mexico are still making nixtamalized masa at home, the practice hasn’t been as prevalent as it once was due to the industrialization of the tortilla-making industry that began in the 1980s. In the years following, many nixtamalized corn-based products were replaced with products made primarily from corn flour (or ground, whole corn kernels that haven’t been cooked in cal). While corn flour lacks some of the nutrition and depth of flavor nixtamalized flour offers, it is indeed easier to produce. 

Demographic shifts have brought about a shift in taste, allowing for the return of nixtamalized corn.

“As the world got busier and as modernization started to happen, [Mexican consumers] started to transition away from nixtamalization, and all of a sudden we were buying [non-nixtamalized] tortillas from the grocery store,” says Hector Saldivar, the CEO and founder of Tia Lupita, a Mexican-founded food brand that introduced nixtamalized corn products to its lineup in 2020. And as corn tortillas and other Mexican food staples became more accessible stateside, demand for them continued to grow, too—right alongside the population of Mexican-Americans living in the U.S. Today, the American tortilla industry is valued at $6.4 billion, and according to Future Market Insights, the corn flour market is expected to reach a valuation of $34.5 billion by 2033, up from $19.3 billion in 2023. 

Demographic shifts have brought about a shift in taste, allowing for the return of nixtamalized corn. “With Latines making up nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population, and more than $3 trillion in purchasing power, our [Mexican] tastes have rapidly become mainstream, and masa is no exception within this shift,” says Jorge Gaviria, the founder of heritage masa brand Masienda and the James Beard Award-nominated author of Masa. As such, several food brands—especially those with Mexican roots and deep cultural ties to nixtamalization—are now featuring nixtamalized corn as a main ingredient in their products despite the extra effort involved in preparing it.

Surprisingly, nixtamalization is "very scalable," says Andrés Figueroa, vice-president of culinary, innovation & quality at Siete Foods, a Mexican-American food brand founded in 2014 that started selling nixtamalized corn chips (aka totopos) earlier this year. Instead of cooking and steeping corn in pots, for example, he says Siete uses large tanks; grinding stones are machine-powered to go through thousands of pounds of corn per hour. "This method still yields the same pliable, warm dough that one would obtain through manual grinding with a metate—the OG flat mortar and pestle stone tool used to hand grind the nixtamalized corn," Figueroa says. "It takes a lot more time, more eyes on the process, and more effort to prepare our chips this way versus mixing corn flour with water, but we see it as worth the cost and worth the effort—as we feel it yields a more flavorful, more authentic totopo."

The extra labor and time, plus the special care for ingredient sourcing, has had some implications for Masienda's ambition to scale its nixtamalized products, says Gaviria. "The real challenge in scaling to larger markets comes much earlier than the nixtamal process. It starts with the corn. No other producer of masa harina is using heirloom corn from Mexico, so we had to essentially build a supply chain where there wasn't one, and we did it one farmer at a time," he says. Since Masienda's farming partners grow very specialized, non-standardized (aka non-hybridized, non-GMO) product, this can result in lower yields (which in turn drives up prices). That more than anything can make the end product a bit more expensive: Masienda's Heirloom White Corn Masa Harina is available at just under $8 per 2.2-pound bag at Whole Foods Market, while other brands' white corn masa often sell for $4 to $6 per bag.

"Industrializing nixtamalization is actually the easy part from a cost perspective; however, finding quality corn that is organic and non-GMO is what drives the costs up," agrees Tia Lupita's Saldivar.

But Gaviria argues that the enhanced flavor and authenticity of nixtamalized products make the cost difference well worth it. "There is intrinsically more labor that goes into cultivating and caring from the plant from seed to cob, but that also equates to more flavor, more genetic and biodiversity protection, and more impact," he says. "We are taking that labor on so other people can have access to a more readily-usable product that is more nutritious—due to the way we process it—with better sourcing and production."

Photo: Tia Lupita

The founders of these brands ultimately agree the benefits of keeping this culinary tradition alive, maximizing corn’s potential health benefits, and showcasing the ingredient’s fullest taste outweigh any of the production hurdles they may encounter.

The founders of these brands ultimately agree the benefits of keeping this culinary tradition alive, maximizing corn’s potential health benefits, and showcasing the ingredient’s fullest taste outweigh any of the production hurdles they may encounter. And, evidently, these concerted efforts are paying off—global nixtamalized corn flour sales are on track for a $3.2 million valuation this year, and are projected to reach $5.3 million over the next decade

A bushel of nixtamalized corn-based foods have already made headway in the market, with brands like Tia Lupita, Masienda, Siete Foods, and Vista Hermosa leading the charge. In 2020, Tia Lupita launched its Cactus Corn Masa Tortillas, a combination of high-fiber nopales (cactus) and nixtamalized corn made into ready-to-eat tortillas. In October 2023, the brand closed a $2.6 million seed round, entirely raised by two leading Mexican investors in the food and beverage sector, Santatera Capital and GBM Ventures. “Having the support of my own country is the ultimate validation of authenticity and sign of approval that what we're doing is showing Mexico, our culture, and our food in the highest regard,” Saldivar says. 

Tia Lupita scored more stateside support after receiving a $500,000 investment from Kevin O’Leary on the television series Shark Tank earlier this year. Saldivar notes that the brand’s tortilla business is up 3 percent year-to-date (YTD), and the team is projecting even higher revenues in 2024 as Tia Lupita expands into new markets. “Distribution through a major retailer, Walmart, is projected to increase Tia Lupita’s growth exponentially in the coming year. The team is excited to be able to bring authentic tortillas to the masses,” he says. 

Meanwhile, Masienda has grown into a leading eight-figure nixtamalized corn company in the U.S. since its 2014 launch. The brand specializes in masa harina, heirloom corn, single-origin ingredients, and cookware (like tortilla presses and molcajetes), all sourced from Mexico. Masienda’s expansion is substantial: The company launched a line of long-anticipated Heirloom Blue and White Corn Masa Harina products nationwide in Whole Foods this September, and Gaviria notes that this marks just the beginning of the company's growth in retail stores nationwide. “There are a lot of brick-and-mortar retailers that are coming to follow [our expansion into Whole Foods Markets], which is a really big deal for us,” Gaviria says.

To that end, in Masienda’s 2022 Sourcing Report, the company outlined its commitment to supporting local Mexican suppliers amid increasing consumer demand. “We have grown our partnerships with farming communities, artisans, and suppliers across Mexico, as well as devoted ourselves to deepening and strengthening the existing relationships that have enabled our growth to date,” Gaviria says. Today, Masienda focuses on buying only surplus inventory from Mexican heirloom corn suppliers in order to keep local markets—and the communities that depend on them—stable. “Our role is not to dictate what is grown, but rather to open up market opportunities for those who would otherwise lack options for their available surplus.” Last year alone, Masienda put $1.2 million worth of its investment funding toward support for small-scale agriculture and family-owned businesses in Mexico.

Siete Foods launched its first-ever nixtamalized corn product line February: Maíz Totopos, three delicious types of nixtamalized corn chips. "We created Siete Maíz Totopos to highlight a heritage ingredient, corn, and honor the process of nixtamalization, an ancient technique that has been part of our Mexican culture for generations,” says Veronica Garza, co-founder, president, and chief innovation officer of Siete Foods. “We are so proud to share this part of our history and bring even more people to the table with better-for-you corn tortilla chips.” Miguel Garza, co-founder and CEO of Siete Foods adds that consumers cannot get enough: “The response has been incredibly encouraging and we look forward to introducing more heritage-inspired products in the months to come,” Garza says. 

"We created Siete Maíz Totopos to highlight a heritage ingredient, corn, and honor the process of nixtamalization, an ancient technique that has been part of our Mexican culture for generations."

Veronica Garza, co-founder, president, and chief innovation officer, Siete Foods

Vista Hermosa, the offshoot CPG brand of the popular East Coast-based taco chain Tacombi that launched in 2015, sells freshly-made Nixtamalized Organic Corn Tortillas and Nixtamalized Totopos that relaunched with new-and-improved flavors in September. Looking ahead, Tacombi plans to open 75 new locations across the U.S. in the next five years, ensuring that more restaurant-goers around the country get a taste of authentic nixtamalization. Meanwhile, Vista Hermosa doubled its business in 2022 and is now available in more than 2,000 retail stores around the nation. 

Although these ready-to-eat corn products aren’t by any means a replacement for making nixtamalized corn flour or other foods at home—which is, without question, the most authentically delicious way to do it—they’re a way for folks to get a taste of the real deal, especially when far away from home, in the form of ready-to-eat products that don't require hours of work to prepare for the consumer. “There are a lot of Mexican foods that have not made it across the border [into the U.S.] yet, and we, at Tia Lupita, want to be the conduit to introduce people to some of these foods,” says Saldivar. “It’s essential to offer a nixtamalized corn product in the U.S. in order to keep our traditions alive and show our authenticity.” As such, Saldivar recognizes the extra effort and resources this culinary technique calls are beyond worthwhile and help him achieve his ultimate goal to preserve and bring nixtamalization to the masses.

In 2024, nixtamalized corn products will continue to pop in various forms in various forms beyond just tortillas and flour. Gaviria says that Masienda has an array of exciting retail grocery launches on tap that “represent the growth the brand—and the entire nixtamalized corn market—is poised for.” Just launched in October: Masienda’s Tamal Kit (a bundle that yields approximately 50 tamales to give you a leg up on planning a tamalada, or tamale-making party), as well as a Champurrado Mix, a warm, chocolate-y, masa-based Mexican beverage; just in time for this holiday season. Over at Tia Lupita’s, Saldivar says plans are in the works to incorporate its nixtamalized masa into more of its products in the upcoming year. Vista Hermosa also plans on building upon its existing lineup of authentic tortillas, totopos, and frozen burritos “with an exciting new line extension,” says Dario Wolos, the CEO and founder of Vista Hermosa and Tacombi. "In 2024, we'll also be growing store distribution across the country, to ensure more households have access to our Mexican pantry staples,” Wolos says. 

The rapid growth of new nixtamalized products hitting the market next year marks the culmination of innovation, tradition, and convenience for many Mexican-American culinary experts. “I think that [homemade versus not-homemade nixtamalized products] both have a place in today's world. We don't have to pick one over the other. If you can make your own masa, do it. If you have to buy it pre-made, do that. There is no hierarchy,” Soto says. 

Be prepared to be a-maize-d by the big strides the nixtamalized corn market is poised to make next year. From ready-to-eat tortillas to dehydrated corn masa for making DIY tamales and sopes, this ancient technique will be keeping our pantries and refrigerators fully-stalked (pun intended) for centuries to come. 

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