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Save the tortillas!

10 April 2022

A friend up in North Carolina was complaining about some weird packaged tortillas she’d bought (Low-Carb Tortillas? … what’s the point, where’s the taste?) but for us in Mexico, where tortillas are a major part of the diet, commercial tortillas, and what they’re made of not just of consumer preference for low-carb, or gluten-free (hey, they’re corn anyway!), or tasteless… but literally a matter of life and death. And national identity.

Miguel Concha, in La Jornada (8 April 2022, page 13. . . my translation with a few additions n brackets for clarity)

Pick your poison?

Under the slogan “Save our tortillas!” the Alianza por Nuestra Tortilla, and Alianza por la Salud Alimentaria (Alliance for Our Tortilla, and Alliance for Food Health) have launched a campaign to encourage participation in the Public Consultation over a draft Official Mexican Standard PROY-NOM-187-SSAI/SE-2021, which regulates the production and sale of tortillas and other corn-based products .

It’s not a small thing: mass production of tortillas –fundamental to the Mexican diet — has led to deteriorating nutritional quality over those produced by traditional processes, like nixtamalization [in which the corn dough, masa, was mixed with alkaline, usually ground limestone, and rinsed… releasing amino acids and other nutrients]. Additionally, displacing traditional recipes with ultra-processed tortillas, made from industrial flours, contain additives, dyes or whiteners intended to imitate the natural characteristics and color of native corn tortillas.

But these are not the only issues. In 2019, the Association of Organic Consumers found that samples of Maseca brand corn flour collected in Mexico and the United States, contained unhealthy levels of glyphosate and transgenic corn [neither of which are supposed to be sold in Mexico]. Various consumer organizations and academic researchers have brought up their concerns and have presented their proposals to re-evaluate the regulations on industrial tortilla production, and on public policy to encourage the consumption of tortillas made from native nixtamalized corn.

This consultation serves as a platform for citizen participation improving the current draft Official Mexican Standard. The comments received will be reviewed by the working groups involved, in order to have a closer project and feasible proposals, in an effort to guarantee that food is derived from quality corn, safe and culturally appropriate.

What do the consumer groups hope for? They propose making a distinction between products derived from nixtamalized corn dough and processed flour, labeling them as such, as well as informing consumers of the other ingredients used in production, as well as the percentage of added ingredients, such as nopales and chiles, and the presence of additives.

In addition to giving the consumers better information on which to make purchases, it is meant to promote food production from native corn, in line with the already existing Federal Law for the Promotion and Protection of Native Corn.

With diabetes and hypertension, resulting [in part ] from a diet rich in ultra-processed products, regulating the way in which food is generated is a necessary measure. Especially when you take into account the socioeconomic conditions of a significant portion of the public for whom corn-based foods, such as tortillas, represent the main source of essential nutrients, both for the development of children and youth, as well as for adults and older adults.

This NOM-187 project does not solve problems such as supporting the local production of native corn by peasant communities, guaranteeing fair prices for producers or providing affordable food for all people. However, it supports the construction of an alternative food production model, close to the communities, that respects people’s human rights and a healthy environment. It is the task of the State to ensure that in the search to guarantee food sovereignty and health in the country, that the public demand that ultra-processed food companies comply with their responsibilities regarding respect the human rights of the population.

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