Domesticated by the indigenous people of South America, maize is now widely cultivated throughout the world. A greater weight of maize grain is produced than any other grain, and it is a staple food for many regions of the world. It is often eaten as a thick porridge-like staple food in many parts of the world such as Africa and South America. In Italy it is known as polenta. Masa (cornmeal treated with limewater) is the main ingredient for tortillas and other Central American dishes.
The leafy stalk produces ears which contain the grain as seeds called kernels. The name ‘maize’ distinguishes corn used for flours and cornmeals from popcorn and sweetcorn, although they all have the same common ancestor.
It was already cultivated in Mexico around 4000 BCE. It’s now thought that all maize varieties originated in the highlands of Southern Mexico about 9000 years ago, as the oldest surviving maize types are found there. The Olmecs and Mayans domesticated and cultivated varieties of it and by around 2500 BCE it had spread through much of the Americas. There was a well developed trade network based on surplus and domesticated breeds of maize. The Spanish introduced it to Europe during the colonisation of the Americas (along with many other foods that are now staples in our diet such as potatoes and tomatoes) and it has since spread to the rest of the world because it is able to grow in diverse climates.
The indigenous Taino indian’s called the plant maiz, and as they were the first people Columbus encountered, this is how maize became the common name in Spain and the Americas. It is also known as corn and other names in different parts of the world.
Whole grain corn flour is a good source of phosphorus, iron, potassium and chlorine. Small amounts of the essential B group vitamins are also present. The complete protein content of flour from corn is 8.5% compared to organic hard wheat’s 11-13% protein.
When people eat a diet comprised mainly of maize it can lead to the vitamin deficiency condition pellagra. This confounded dieticians since maize was a major part of the diet of indigenous South Americans for millennia. However they had developed a method of soaking the grain in alkali-water made with ashes and calcium oxide (limewater), which liberates the niacin. This method also also increased the availability of the amino acids lysine and tryptophan. They also balanced their maize dishes with beans and other proteins such as amaranth and chia, meat and fish.
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