Mexico’s Ancestral Contributions to Modern Nutrition

Original article by Rubi Orozco Santos. Published in Spanish, La Jornada del Campo Issue 65, 13 Feb 2013.

Traditional foods are part of our culture and identity, part of our genes, and an ancestral legacy that we are charged with maintaining and teaching to future generations. Traditional foods are an essential part of primary and tertiary healthcare; that is, they help us prevent disease and are also useful in the treatment of disease.

In his book, Pre-Hispanic Medicine, Carlos Viesca Treviño recounts the praise with which European colonizers noted the good physical condition of the inhabitants of the New World, including this text by Torquemada: of good bodies, and all of their members of very good proportion … they are not too meaty, nor too thin, but of good and proportionate distribution…” He also notes that in those times the common diseases of the population were diarrhea and eye irritations. How, then, does Mexico come to rank second in the list of countries with the greatest obese population in the world?

One can postulate that the answer to this question is colonization: the first having occurred in 1492 and the second in the mid-20th century. The colonizer seizes the people’s knowledge, burning books and replacing religious, political, agricultural, and other practices with their own. The colonized people, driven either by a sense of inferiority or for the sake of survival, accept the ideology and lifestyle of the colonizer, including their eating habits. Mexico’s conquest brought with it the consumption of bigger animals, dairy, and animal lard, as well as the practice of heating oils for cooking (frying). These changes to the pre-Hispanic diet were integrated so gradually and naturally into the mestizo culture that we have reached a point in history in which Mexican food is internationally known to be synonymous with meat, excessive use of cheese, and fried foods.

Not only that. Many Mexicans erroneously minimize the importance of highly nutritious traditional foods such as beans, referring to them as ‘poor people’s food,’ and considering daily consumption of meat as a sign of opulence. This is a symptom of a people whose food worldview and dietary habits have been colonized. However, traditional foods are the medicine that the Mexican people need to recover their dietary health. It is a system that can and should be studied, documented, practiced, and elevated on the world stage – as Ayurveda is for India.

Alimentos Tradicionales2What are the characteristics of traditional Mexican food practices that can serve as medicine for the current food crisis our people face? Much has already been written about the wise use of limestone in the process of preparing corn (nixtamalización); the combination of beans and corn; and traditional cooking methods: boiled, grilled, and steamed.

The following characteristics also stand out: the concept and practice of variety (especially the diversity of protein sources), the use of herbs or wild greens, and the use of seeds for medicinal purposes.

Variety is an extremely important part of nutrition as well as traditional medicine. As Doña Vicenta, one of Mexico’s most renowned herbalists based in Amatlan, Morelos, said: “We should not depend only on one type of medicinal plant for treatment. If we give the body only one type of plant, the body becomes lazy.” Wise words, based on the empirical knowledge of a people who listen to the teachings of the land. The variety of traditional foods can be seen in the consumption of all types of vegetables, fruits, legumes, seeds, and flowers. These comprise the main portion of a plate – a cornucopia when compared to the current food system, which depends on a few ingredients packaged in different boxes with different color labels a spurious attempt at ‘variety.’ (It is worth noting that variety is also a key concept of food production in agro-ecology to preserve the health of the soil: monoculture depletes the land, also making it ‘lazy’).

The concept of diversifying our foods can be seen in Michael Pollan’s recent call to eat different color foods every day (naturally occurring colors, that is). In this line of reasoning, traditional dietary practices do not over consume animal protein; on the contrary, the main sources of protein tend to vary and be of vegetable origin, and animal foods tend to be comprised of small animals (and even insects) and utilized as flavorings or supplements. The great variety of legumes and seeds such as beans, peanuts, amaranth, chia, mesquite and sunflower seeds serve as protein sources while also providing fiber, unsaturated fats, including omega 3 fatty acids in the case of chia; vitamins, such as vitamin E in the case of peanuts; and minerals such as calcium in the case of amaranth. Animal foods lack these virtues and their excessive intake is related to a greater risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer.

Meals made with traditional foods also commonly include herbs or wild greens. These wild greens include pápalo, epazote, amaranth leaves, and purslane. We are still learning the benefits of wild greens. Many of these herbs serve as medicine in greater dosage; for example, epazote is used in small quantities to cook (famously preventing flatulence when added to a pot of beans) and as medicine to treat intestinal parasites or stimulate menstruation. And of course, even the seeds of fruits are given their place – including the seeds of avocado and mamey, which are usually air dried and used either grilled or grated in medicinal infusions or to produce body care products such as pomades or ointments.

Are the Mexican people aware of the current colonization, which began in the mid-2oth century? The one that creates seed patents and dependency on agrochemicals? The one that leads us to believe that hamburgers from transnational fast food chains are somehow superior to a respectable plate of tlacoyos? The one that leads us to pair our daily meal with a soda instead of a fresh chia drink, without questioning our choice? Colonization does not always arrive violently – it is also subtle, making us think we are making conscious decisions, when in reality we are acting based on manipulated messages that have injected false notions of superiority and inferiority in our minds.  It is that same culture of opulence that breeds the diseases of excess. There are countless public health studies that demonstrate the damaging effect of acculturation of indigenous people around the world to the modern American diet.

And so, a home in resistance is that in which a bouquet of wild greens is found in the center of the table, where seeds and herbs are laid across the table to air dry, where the dignified scent of boiling beans fills the air with culture, where ancestral knowledge is valued and reminds us that we are men and women of corn. Traditional foods are an offering whose virtues serve as medicine to heal the modern crisis in public health nutrition and to ensure improved health for future generations.

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