Corn, a Whole Grain Staple in the Blue Zone Nicoya, Costa Rica

Whole grains are an important part of a whole foods plant-based diet. Whole grains, like quinoa, brown rice, barley, and even corn, contribute to our daily fiber intake, and these good grains provide important prebiotics, feeding the all important healthy bacteria in our gut. 

Regular consumption of nutritious, whole grains helps to increase the variety and volume of gut microbiota. As fermentation of these carbohydrates occur, gut microbiota metabolites, also known as short chain fatty acids, are produced and can help with modulating gut inflammation. This process can aid in regulating metabolism and fueling the immune system.  

Variety is key when it comes to grains, so we love sharing content with our community about ways people in blue zone regions around the world consume their whole grains. Corn, for example, is one of the staples of cooking in Nicoya, Costa Rica with a delicious and health promoting history. 

Corn, a Whole Grain Favorite in Nicoya

Mornings in the Blue Zones region of Nicoya, Costa Rica begin with handmade corn tortillas and gallo pinto (rice and beans), topped with chilero hot sauce. These corn tortillas are a source of whole grain, low-glycemic complex carbohydrates. Corn itself is enjoyed at almost every Nicoyan meal, along with beans and rice.

You may be surprised to discover that the Department of Agriculture allows masa (corn flour) to count as a whole grain because of the increased bioavailability of nutrients, including niacin (vitamin B2). 

When corn tortillas are prepared in the same fashion as the centenarians in Nicoya, the wood ash used in the cooking process actually breaks down the corn’s cell walls, which increases the bioavailability of niacin, while also freeing amino acids so the body can absorb them. “Nixtamal” means corn that has been cooked with wood ash or lime (calcium hydroxide). This Mesoamerican process maximizes the nutritional value of corn by releasing the B vitamin niacin. Niacin may be beneficial in reducing “bad” cholesterol and increasing “good” cholesterol, while also improving digestion. In addition to being a good source of fiber and B vitamins, corn contains the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which can help with eye health, and also contains vitamins E and K, as well as important minerals, such as magnesium and potassium.

The corn flour, often called masa harina, that you find at the store is usually “nixtamalized,” meaning the grain has been soaked in a lime solution, drained, and then ground into meal—just like the method the Nicoyans use!  

Give handmade tortillas a try! Head to the international ethnic food aisle of your local grocery store to pick up nixtamal, or corn flour (also called masa harina). You may also find it fun to explore your local Mexican or Latin grocery store. 

If crafting handmade tortillas seems a bit daunting, no need to fret. Here are some recipes that incorporate corn in different forms to give you the chance to enjoy the benefits of this important grain!

Vegetarian Stuffed Bells

Brown rice and beans take the place of white rice and beef in this traditional homestyle recipe. This is especially attractive when you combine different colored bell peppers.

Tamale Pie

Beans and veggies stewed in enchilada sauce create a savory base for this Tamale Pie. The pie is topped with a cornmeal mixture that features pumpkin puree and homemade vegan “buttermilk” for a perfect sweet and savory dish that everyone in the family will enjoy!

Southwest Salad with Fresh Corn, Black Beans and Ranch Dressing  

When you’re pressed for time, this Southwest-inspired salad can be thrown together in a pinch. Enjoy fresh corn with another Blue Zones staple—beans! Perfect for those warm weather days, or when you need something light, yet filling to power through the rest of your day.

Breakfast Polenta with Banana & Berries

When you’re not waking up to gallo pinto, or if you’re craving something sweet for breakfast, this breakfast polenta is made with cinnamon and is dressed up with blackberries, bananas, and walnuts for a simple, yet filling meal.

Rainbow Veggie Skewers

If you prefer your corn on the cob, then you’ll love this bright and colorful dish! An array of nutritious vegetables, including corn, zucchini, bell peppers, onion, and tomatoes, are grilled to perfection and seasoned with dried basil and oregano for a zesty bite.

Fresh Corn, Avocado and Cilantro Tacos with Pinto Beans

For quick and easy tacos, these refreshing tacos are a crowd pleaser! Featuring protein-rich beans, crunchy fresh corn, tart lime juice, and creamy avocado, all brought together in—you guessed it!—corn tortillas.

Polenta Pizza with Cashew Mozzarella

Swap traditional pizza crust for this gluten-free polenta version! The crust features rosemary for a fragrant addition, and the pizza is topped with a fresh tomato sauce, homemade cashew mozzarella, crunchy broccoli and fresh basil.

As you can see there are many ways to enjoy corn as a whole grain, whether you enjoy the kernels on their own, prepare your food with corn flour, or you incorporate the ever-so-versatile polenta. Add one of these hearty dishes into your weekly rotation to taste life as a centenarian.

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