Treating Corn to Prevent Pellagra

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned corn and pellagra.  Pellagra was a vitamin deficiency disease caused by a lack of niacin.  It became an epidemic in the south during the great depression.  It was a main staple eaten by many of the poor.

When corn was first introduced into non-Native American farming, it was generally welcomed with enthusiasm for its productivity.  However, a widespread problem of malnutrition soon arose wherever corn became the main staple.  This was a mystery since these types of malnutrition were not normally seen among the Native Americans to whom corn was the principal staple food.

It was eventually discovered that the Native Americans learned long ago to add alkali—in the form of wood ashes among North Americans and lime (calcium carbonate) among South and Central Americans—to corn meal.  This liberates the B-vitamin niacin, the lack of which was the underlying cause of the condition known as pellagra.  This is known as Nixtamalization and corrects the niacin deficiency.
Pellagra seldom occurs among people who eat corn tortillas.  The soaking of the corn used to make the tortillas increases the availability of the niacin.  Masa Harina which is sold in many Mexican stores is corn meal treated with lime.  The lime that corn for tortillas are soaked in is “Calcium Hydroxide” or “Pickling Lime”…not lime juice.  Hominy is another process that treats corn with lye (alkali) and liberates the niacin.

Besides the lack of niacin, pellagra was also characterized by protein deficiency, the result of a lack of two key amino acids in corn, lysine and tryptophan.  The Native Americans had learned to balance their consumption of corn with beans and other protein sources, such as meat and fish, in order to acquire the complete range of amino acids for normal protein synthesis.

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Corn, despite its limitations, is still an excellent storage food.  The best variety to store is yellow flint or dent corn.  They are low in moisture if properly dried.  They make good polenta meal and flour.  Popcorn should not be ground in most mills due to its extreme hardness.  Several mills such as The Family Grain Mill and the Back T Basic Mill recommend that their mills not be used for popcorn.

This is a good example of why you would want a good variety in your food storage.  I will try and publish recipes for making tortillas and hominy the old fashioned way in the next few days.




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15 thoughts on “Treating Corn to Prevent Pellagra”

  1. I love your site. You always have something interesting on it. Enjoyed todays article because this is something we don’t THINK about and would need to be known if some SHTF situation came up.
    I enjoyed the article on binoculars also. But afraid as most are out of my price range will have to go china and get a very inexpensive pair.
    And enjoyed the review on the radio. Will have to get one.
    Sorry didn’t post as the articles came out. Guess I’m kinda lazy. Wonder how that will work in some situations?

  2. On the binoculars try garage sales an older pair of Sears or J C Penny’s are better than most of the Chinese and usually sell for 5-10 dollars.

  3. It is better to plant one of the heirloom corn varieties. Modern #2 yellow dent (the most common corn you see growing everywhere) is about 7-8% protein. The heirloom corns like bloody butcher, mandan bride, seneca red stalker etc. range from 11-14% protein. The heirlooms also have about twice the micronutrients of the newer corn. Modern varities of almost all plants have less nutrients and more calories than the old version. The variety of what you plant and store matters.

    Winter is coming.

    1. Is there a taste difference between !ye vs lime soaked corn ?
      Sodium versus calcium hydroxide ? TASTE DIFFERENCE ?

  4. Jeanne Vaughan

    I’m loving your site!!! Guess I’ll be a regular reader from now on as there are so many helpful, doable things listed here. Keep up the good work folks!

  5. Thanks for the info. I have an allergy to lime, the citrus, and I have avoided corn products thinking they were treated with lime the citrus. So anytime a corn product states lime in its ingredient list, it is not the citrus fruit right?

  6. “Don’t use GMO” looks good and sounds good but in late October, 2011, the earth’s population reached seven billion people. In a few years, a little over another decade, it will reach eight billion and climbing.

    We can not feed the earth’s population on heritage foods, subsistance farmers and small truck farmers. Scientific advances and mega-farming are critical to feeding these people.

    Feels good, sounds good to slam GMO but hungry people need food.

  7. There is literally zero evidence that GMO foods survive better, yield more or require less effort than heirloom verities. The additional cost associated with farming organic is associated with regulation compliancy, not actual cost. My family has been farmers for 50 years and are highly concerned with the genetic weaknesses associated with any product compromised at the DNA level. Additionally, the lack of ability to reproduce makes GMO farming considerably more expensive, especially for the worlds poorest who can no longer save and replant their own seeds. Please speak not of that which you do not know.

  8. Alissa Joy, Thanks for speaking out about the dangers of GMOs! The lab rat plant varieties released into our worlds environment are a clear and present danger to humanity! The increased use of roundup and other herbicides is alarming, due to increased water pollution, beneficial insect and plant species being drastically reduced and threatened with extinction and the loss of biodiversity in our crop seed varieties, by use being reduced and/or contaminated by the rise of GMO crops. We will not know fully the impact of some of these Frankenstein plants created in labs for generations! The world is in danger of unsustainability of food production more by the creation of these organisms than by lack of natural food supplies. Population control will happen at some time in the future,spurred by the failure of natural systems with or without GMOs. Our best hope for a sustainable and healthy humanity is through sustainable agricultural practices and population control.

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