Working together, researchers at the University of Illinois and the University of Sinaloa, Mexico, have developed a new method of nixtamalization, the process of treating corn in an alkaline solution, that yields a higher-quality masa dough and/or instant masa flour than traditional nixtamalization processes. These corn derivatives are used to produce a variety of familiar foods such as corn chips, tortilla chips, taco shells, and soft tortillas. The primary advances in this new nixtamalization process are that it eliminates the nejayote, a byproduct of processing that can be environmentally harmful because of its alkaline characteristics, and it increases product and process flexibility.
This technology is a new nixtamalization process that uses a novel base ingredient, reducing the amounts of water and lime necessary to form high quality masa. The process begins with the corn germ and pericarp being separated from the kernel and the remaining endosperm being further separated by size into at least three fractions: corn grit, corn meal and corn flour. Any of these fractions or subfractions can then be nixtamalized separately to form high-quality masa dough for tortillas, chips, etc., or instant masa-flour for consumer sales. The conventional wisdom that the germ imparts both flavor and desired baking characteristics to masa is not entirely factual. In this new process, the elimination of the germ actually increased the baking characteristics of the end product without affecting taste.
By factionalizing the germ fraction, it became a source from which a valuable co-product, corn oil, can be extracted. Furthermore, with the up-front elimination of the germ, the fat content is significantly reduced making the masa flour, and tortillas produced from it, potentially appealing to dieters.
- Production of masa: This process produces the fresh masa dough used in the production of high-quality tortillas and corn-based snacks and the instant masa flour sold as a consumer good.
- Isolation of a value-added product: The new nixtimilization method allows dry millers to capture a value-added byproduct of processing: corn germ, from which corn oil can be extracted. Corn oil has a variety of applications in the food, drug, and industrial sectors.
- Lowers cost: With the fractionation of kernels, this process eliminates the need for costly, labor-intensive procedures associated with soaking the corn for several hours then neutralizing the nejayote prior to its release into the environment.
- Environmentally sound: Along with reducing the cost of processing and increasing saleable products, the elimination of the nejayote creates a process that involves no harmful waste. Nejayote streams are major environmental concerns in Mexico and other Latin American countries where barren land stretches from facilities where nixtamalization is carried out.
- Increases quality of end product: This process isolates the corn's germ and pericarp without diminishing the baking characteristics of the masa dough or the taste and texture of the end products. Additionally, tortillas produced through this new technique exhibit greater "puffing" after baking and retain superior flexibility for up to four days.
- Offers more options in processing: Fractionating the kernels into germ, pericap, and various endosperm fractions facilitates the ability to cook each of these components separately and then combine them to meet manufacturers' desired specifications and characteristics.
- Lowers fat content without altering taste: By isolating the germ upfront, this process reduces the fat content of nixtamalized corn products and has little to no impact on taste. Also, isolating the germ allows processors to extract oil to sell as a byproduct.