Dec 082016

Corn (maize) has been the principal food of the Tarahumara Indians since long before the Spanish arrived in Mexico. There are several precolumbian varieties that are still grown, including the ancient and delicious “blue corn”. Maize is the source of a wide variety of foodstuffs and drinks including flour (pinole), a non‑alcoholic drink called esquiate, tortillas, atole and tamales. Green corn and blue corn tortillas are made when in season, for special occasions. A version of corn beer (Spanish “tesgüino“) is also important, and is described separately below.

The Tarahumara continue to “hunt and gather” locally available foodstuffs, though these activities now supply only about 10% of their diet. Several varieties of cactus fruit are collected, edible agaves are cooked, and small river fish are caught where possible. Small animals are ruthlessly hunted. Squirrels, birds and deer, though rare today, are considered particular delicacies.

Beans, mustard green and squash also play important parts in the Tarahumara diet which is rounded out by wheat, potatoes, peaches and sweet potatoes. Those Tarahumara with access to lower elevations, such as Batopilas Canyon, also include crops typical of warmer regions such as oranges, figs and sugar‑cane. Chiles and tobacco are also cultivated.

Meat is hard to come by, and eaten only on ceremonial occasions when a goat or cow is sacrificed. It probably accounts for less than 5% of the average Tarahumara diet. Most protein comes from beans; these are usually prepared by roasting, grinding and then boiling with water, to produce a hot soup. Pork, chicken and eggs are rarely found, while sheep are kept mainly for their wool.

Squash is only eaten in season though the Indians know how to preserve it by drying. The squash flowers are eaten too, boiled with water and salt. Mustard greens (Tarahumara “maquasori“, Spanish “quelites“) are grown in the rainy season and carefully gathered and dried, for use throughout the year, providing minerals and vitamins. Quelites include the epazote plant (Chenopodium ambrosioides), described by Diana Kennedy, the world’s foremost authority on Mexican cuisine, as “the Mexican herb par excellence”.

Many families have a small number of scrubby fruit trees, usually peaches, near their house. Fruit is often picked and eaten green. Peaches are an important trading item, and may be exchanged for cigarettes or cloth. At higher elevations, apples are grown.

Given the well-documented endurance feats of Tarahumara runners, this diet clearly provides adequate nutrition! In the 1994 Denver, Colorado, “Sky Race”, Tarahumara Indian Juan Herrera (25 years old) smashed 25 minutes off the previous record, completing the 160 kilometers in 17 hours, 30 minutes, 42 seconds. He came in more than half an hour ahead of his nearest rival!

However, in many years (including 2011, 2012), and seemingly with increasing frequency, food is in extremely short supply by the time the summer growing season arrives. Fortunately for the less successful Tarahumara farmers, an age‑old tribal custom, korima is still observed. This custom requires the better‑off to share food with the less fortunate in times of need. The poor person visits successive ranchos, collecting small quantities of food to last him a week or two, then repeats this procedure as necessary. No lasting debt is incurred. The severe drought in northern Mexico over the past 24 months – see Many states in Mexico badly affected by drought – has meant that many Tarahumara have no food reserves left and have had to rely on infrequent emergency aid organized by charitable organizations, and the federal and state government.

Tesgüino (corn beer)

The average Tarahumara family expends 100 kg of corn a year to make tesgüino. This is sufficient corn to last a family of 4‑5 about a month, a significant quantity, given the regular annual food deficiencies in this region.

Tesgüino is a form of corn‑beer. It is a thick, milky, nutritious drink, supplying much needed vitamins, minerals and calories. The corn is first dampened and allowed to sprout in a dark place, then ground and boiled for about 8 hours with a catalyst to promote fermentation. The catalyst may be local grass seed (basiahuari) ground in a metate, or bark, leaves, lichens or roots, depending on the place. The liquid is then strained and left to ferment for about three days. The total preparation time is therefore about seven days. To avoid spoilage, the beverage must be drunk quickly. It’s at its best for only 12‑24 hours. This explains why it would be so wasteful to leave any corn beer tesgüino undrunk at a “tesgüinada” (see below); it would be far too wasteful, even if as many as 50 gallons have been made.

Other alcoholic drinks are also made, one based on green corn (pachiki or caña) and another on maguey (meki). In earlier times, there were no alcoholics as we define the term, since tesgüino can’t be stored, but today the greater availability of commercial alcohol poses a serious problem.

Why are tesgüinadas so important?

The tesgüinada system is the social device which ties individual settlements (ranchos) together in a cooperative framework for performing all kinds of agricultural tasks. The person requiring assistance with a particular task will invite his neighbors and friends to a “tesgüinada”. He takes responsibility for providing the tesgüino, other refreshments and food. In return, the persons who attend will help plow. sow, reap or weed..

Lumholtz, recognizing from his time among the Tarahumara at the end of the last century the importance of the tesgüinada, summed up their philosophy writing that, “Rain cannot be obtained without tesgüino. Tesgüino cannot be made without corn and corn cannot grow without rain.”

The tesgüinada is necessary since many families cannot supply the labor required for both herding and cultivation at certain times of the year. In small groups like the ranchos, high mortality inevitably leaves some families unable to manage on their own. The tesgüinada is their response to the economic uncertainties facing them just as collective religious rituals help them face the unpredictability of weather, sickness and plagues. The cooperative effort moves from one rancho to another, from one tesgüinada to the next.

The tesgüinadas, which are like large, boisterous parties, provide a focus for Tarahumara social life, a chance for entertainment and to make extra-familiar friendships. Being held in a succession of different ranchos, they offer some communal resilience against the risks of becoming further isolated and marginalized. The Tarahumara attach no shame to being drunk; indeed, they positively revel in getting as drunk as humanly possible at tesgüinadas. Children are excluded until they are 14 years old or so.

Tesgüinadas do come at a cost. They increase the incidence of accidents, such as adult men falling off precipitous rock ledges that would normally pose little risk, even when running. They increase violence, which may result in serious injury or death. They also limit the amount of corn that can be held over from one year to the next. Assuming an average of 4‑6 tesgüinadas per year per family, with additional visits to tesgüinadas held in perhaps 15 other households, many Tarahumara Indians would be likely to attend more than sixty tesgüinadas a year. Even if the true figure is only 50% of this total, it still means that the Tarahumara spend as many as 100 days a year either preparing for a tesgüinada, attending one, or recovering from one.

Sources /  Bibliography:

  1. Bennett, W. and Zingg, R. (1935) The Tarahumara. Univ. of Chicago Press. Reprinted by Rio Grande Press, 1976.
  2. Kennedy, J.G. (1978) Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre; Beer, Ecology and Social Organization, AHM Publishing Corp, Arlington Heights, Illinois. Republished, as The Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre: Survivors on the Canyon’s Edge in 1996.
  3. Lumholtz, C. (1902) Unknown Mexico. 2 volumes. Scribner’s Sons, New York. Republished in both English and Spanish.
  4. Pennington, C. (1963) The Tarahumar of Mexico, their environment and material culture. Univ. of Utah Press. Reprint by Editorial Agata, Guadalajara, 1996.

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Oct 192015

While updating our posts on honey recently, we took a look at which brands of Mexican honey sell overseas and how these brands are labeled. Let’s take a closer look at two of them.

Alasia Honey from the Yucatan

Alasia Honey from the Yucatan (click to enlarge)

First up is Alasia Honey, labeled as “Pure Mexican Yucatan Tropical Forest Honey”. The smaller print says that “This Mexican honey is from the tropical forests of the Yucatan peninsula, the ancient heart of the Maya people, where beekeeping has been a spiritual art for thousands of years.” Great description, and sounds pretty accurate in all respects. Native Mexican honeybees were, and are, important to the Maya people, and the natural vegetation of most of the Yucatan Peninsula is, indeed, tropical evergreen forest.

Next up is Asda Mexican Fairtrade Organic Clear Mexican Honey:

Asda Fair Trade Mexican Honey

Asda Fair Trade Mexican Honey (click to enlarge)

Anytime the “Fairtrade” name is used, most people assume that it is likely to be more respectful to the producers, and probably also assume that any further description will be culturally sensitive and geographically accurate. This is only partly true for the Asda honey. Below the Fairtrade symbol, it says “Guarantees a better deal for Third World Producers.” The term “Third World” slipped out of fashion (for good reason) a long time ago, so hardly counts as contemporary development terminology.

The small print along the bottom of the label says, “Specially sourced from farms in the remote areas of the Mexican Sierras”. Hmm… really?? There are several areas of high relief in Mexico that are named “Sierra” (“Mountain Range”), the two major ones being the Western Sierra Madre and the Eastern Sierra Madre, both well to the north of Mexico’s main honey-producing states. Most organic honey in Mexico comes from the Yucatán Peninsula, where there are no Sierras. Hence, the claim that this honey originates in “remote areas of the Mexican Sierras” is, at best, geographically ambiguous, and at worst, geographically inaccurate.

We don’t know which honey tastes better, but we do know which has the more honest and culturally-sensitive labeling!

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Mexico’s food and beverage multinationals continue to expand

 Updates to Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on Mexico’s food and beverage multinationals continue to expand
Sep 032015

Mexico’s seven leading food and beverage multinationals have invested a total of 7.42 billion dollars overseas in the past five years. The investments include acquisitions of other firms, building new plants and enlarging or remodeling existing plants.

The seven firms are:

  • Coca-Cola Femsa
  • Grupo Bimbo
  • Arca Continental
  • Gruma
  • Sigma Alimentos
  • Grupo Lala
  • Grupo Herdez

In terms of the number of countries where they have a presence, the two most globalized food and beverage firms in Mexico are Grupo Bimbo and Gruma, which are in 22 and 18 countries respectively (see map). Both firms are now quite dependent on foreign earnings. About 61% of Bimbo’s revenues, and almost 70% of Gruma’s revenues, originate from outside Mexico. Both firms have the longest reach of any of the food and beverage multinationals: Bimbo as far as China, and Gruma in Australia.

Mexican food-related multinationals

Mexican food-related multinationals are present in all the countries colored blue

In this post, we take a quick look at each of these seven firms and their recent activity abroad:

Femsa, based in Monterrey, is the world’s largest bottler of Coca-Cola products, with 45 plants in Latin America, including Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela, as well as 19 plants in the Philippines. It spent 1.855 billion dollars to buy Brazilian firm Spaipa, and a further 258 million dollars on building a new plant there (its tenth plant in Brazil), as well as 688.5 million dollars for 51% of the Coca-Cola Company in the Philippines. Femas also operates the OXXO chain of convenience stores, the largest such chain in Latin America.

Grupo Bimbo is the world’s largest bread maker and the biggest bread seller in the USA. It is the world’s 4th largest food company behind only Nestle, Kraft, and Unilever. Bimbo has 85 plants in the USA and Canada, 39 in Mexico, 32 elsewhere in Latin America, 10 in Europa and one in Asia. It has expanded primarily via acquisitions. It bought Canada Bread in 2014 for 1.66 billion dollars. In 2011, U.S. agencies authorized its purchase of Sara Lee for 709 million dollars. It also bought Bimbo Iberia (Spain) for 160 million dollars in 2011. It is now awaiting approval from Spanish regulatory authorities to complete its purchase of Panrico for 210 million dollars.

Gruma (main brands Maseca and Mission) is the world’s largest producer of corn flour and tortillas. It has 79 production plants worldwide and operates in North America, Europe, Asia and Oceanía. Gruma recently bought Azteca Foods Europe (Spain) for 48 million dollars. In 2014, it bought Mexifoods (Spain) for 15 million dollars. It also owns Albuquerque Tortilla Company. Gruma has also invested in new factories, including a 50-million-dollar plant in California, opened in 2010, as well as a new factory in Russia costing a similar amount.

Arca Continental, the second largest Coca-Cola bottler in Latin America, has 35 plants in the region. It purchased a milk products firm, Holding Tonicorp (Ecuador), in 2014 for 400 million dollars, and spent around 330 million dollars in 2012 to acquire two snack food firms: Wise Foods (USA) and Inalecsa (Ecuador).

Sigma Alimentos (cold cuts, cheese, yoghurts and other milk products) has 67 production facilities in total, including (in addition to Mexico) the U.S., Costa Rica, El Salvador, Spain, France, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal. It recently bought Spanish firm Campofrío for 345 million dollars.

Grupo Lala (milk products) has 18 production plants in Mexico and Central America. It recently bought Nicaraguan firm Eskimo (ice-cream and other milk products) for around 53.2 million dollars.

Grupo Herdez has 13 plants in Mexico, one in the USA and one in Chile. It recently bought Helados Nestlé in Mexico.

What these firms have in common is that they specialize in making products that are relatively easy to adapt to local tastes (glocalization). They have also started their expansions outside Mexico by focusing initially on markets with familiar languages and culture before venturing further afield.

As interesting as where the companies ARE is where the companies are NOT. Astonishingly, the map suggests that no Mexican food-related multinational yet has a toe-hold in any country in Africa, for example.

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Diana Kennedy and regional cuisines in Mexico

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Aug 302014

Diana Kennedy is the world’s foremost authority on regional Mexican cuisines. Born in the UK, she moved to Mexico in 1957 with her husband, Paul Kennedy, a New York Times correspondent. Over the next half a century, Kennedy traveled the length and breadth of Mexico, collecting stories, cooking techniques and recipes, and writing about regional cuisines from all over the country.

kennedy-cuisines-of-mexicoHer first cookbook The Cuisines of Mexico was published in 1972 and quickly became a classic. She has written several other books about Mexican cuisine, including

Now in her nineties, Kennedy continues to live in an eco-friendly house in s small village near the city of Zitácuaro in the western Mexico state of Michoacán. The Mexican government awarded her the Aztec Eagle, Mexico’s highest award for non-Mexicans, for her truly outstanding contribution to the country.

In this recent BBC radio podcast, Diana Kennedy is interviewed about her lifetime’s work, including the thousands of hours spent driving along dusty dirt tracks in her pick up truck in search of yet another unrecorded gem of Mexican cuisine.

Her travels often took her to indigenous villages, way off the beaten track, where she would study how and what the local people cooked, discovering along the way, all kinds of things never previously written about.

Podcast (mp3 file) of BBC Radio 4 Food Programme about Diana Kennedy :


The initial leads for the next trip often came from the maids of friends in Mexico City, maids who were prepared to share their family recipe secrets with her.

Kennedy documented varieties of corn and beans that are rapidly disappearing, as are the small family farms where they were grown. In most locations, she would start by exploring the local market. Marveling over the incredible fresh produce she encountered wherever she traveled, she recorded every detail; sadly, some of these markets have long since disappeared.

The “Mexican miracle” of the 1960s and 1970s, with its growing economic prosperity brought a tide of imported foods into Mexico. These reached deep into the countryside. In many places, traditional foods were forgotten, replaced by imported items such as wheat bread and pork chops.

Dietary changes have continued to plague Mexico, leading to a dramatic increase in obesity. Note, though, that despite the claims made on this BBC program, Mexico does not yet lead the world in obesity – though it is the fourth most obese country in the world (excluding small island states). Clearly, BBC researchers should read Geo-Mexico more often.

Kennedy’s 1972 book, The Cuisines of Mexico was a ground-breaking look at the regional world of food in Mexico. UNAM, Mexico’s National University, is keeping Kennedy’s work alive by making digital copies of all her notebooks, some of which date back to the 1950s.

For more about Mexican cuisine, visit the amazing award-winning blog Mexico Cooks! and also browse the huge selection of recipes, articles and tips about all aspects of Mexican food and cooking in the “Cuisine” section of MexConnect. ¡Buen provecho!

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The regional geography of tacos

 Books and resources  Comments Off on The regional geography of tacos
Jun 072014

A taco is a corn or wheat tortilla folded or rolled around other edible ingredients, and designed to be eaten by hand – the indigenous Mexican equivalent of a sandwich. Tacos are extremely versatile and often accompanied by garnishes such as tomatoes, onions, lettuce, radishes, and avocado or guacamole, topped with salsa and cilantro.

Who would have thought that the humble taco was worth its own encyclopaedia? This particular encyclopaedia includes a fascinating graphic – a map (see graphic) summarizing the different regional varieties of taco commonly found in different parts of the country.

The accompanying terminology used to describe all these tacos is mind-blowing, but a small sampling will give you the idea:

Regional varieties of Mexican tacos

Regional varieties of Mexican tacos. Credit: La tacopedia. Enciclopedia del taco (Spanish Edition) . Click to enlarge.

The map is by no means an exhaustive list, but does include examples of taco specialties for every state.

The two states occupying the Baja California Peninsula both have seafood-based tacos:

  • Baja California – tacos de langosta con frijoles (lobster and beans tacos)
  • Baja California Sur – tacos de marlin ahumado (smoked marlin tacos)

The tacos popular in some states reveal less about their ingredients:

  • Aguascalientes – tacos mineros (miner’s tacos)
  • Coahuila – tacos laguneros (Laguna region tacos)
  • Morelos – tacos acorazados (battleship tacos)
  • Puebla – taquitos miniatura (miniature tacos)

For some unusual ingredients, try:

  • Chiapas – tacos de hormiga chicatana (flying ant tacos)
  • Colima – tacos de sesos (brain tacos)
  • Hidalgo – tacos de gusanos de maguey (maguey worm tacos)
  • Yucatán – tacos de tzic de venado (shredded venison tacos)

Feeling daring? Try the tacos envenenados in Zacatecas. The literal meaning is “poisoned tacos”, but they are apparently named so as not to reveal all their ingredients!

Tacos have become incredibly popular. While they predate the Spanish conquest, they are now well on their way to conquering large swathes of North America and Europe.

The regional patterns is analyzed further by Frank Jacobs in 604 – A Tacography of Mexico

For more about tacos, we recommend reading La tacopedia. Enciclopedia del taco by Deborah Holtz and Juan Carlos Mena (Trilce Ediciones, 2012).

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Eight types of bananas are grown commercially in Mexico

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Mar 202014

In an earlier post, The geography of banana production in Mexico, we provided an overview of banana production in Mexico. Eight different kinds of bananas are grown in Mexico (see graphic). The harvesting of bananas is mainly in the third quarter of each year.

Eight kinds of bananas grown in Mexico

Eight kinds of bananas grown in Mexico. Click to enlarge. Credit: SAGARPA

The eight main types of bananas grown in Mexico are:

  • Cavendish gigante – thick skin, milder taste, the most popular of the smaller varieties, 55% of national production, half of it from Tabasco
  • Macho – plantains, best eaten cooked; about 15% of national production, mainly in Chiapas (municipalities of Suchiate and Acapetahua), Tabasco (Centro and Cunduacán) and Veracruz (Otatitlán and Tlacojalpan)
  • Tabasco – high quality, medium sized fruit with excellent flavor. About 7% of national production
  • Valery – less firm fruit, consistency more like a cherry (4%)
  • Dominico – short, squat, relatively straight and sweet-tasting (3%)
  • Pera – fat, slightly curved, and up to 24 cm in length. Each finger can weigh 300 grams (2%)
  • Manzano – long rhizomes, pleasant taste and smell (1%)
  • Morado – disease resistant, stronger tasting, orange-tinted skin (0.5%)

Mexican banana and plantain recipes (from MexConnect)

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Mexico the fourth most obese country in the world

 Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Mexico the fourth most obese country in the world
Jun 062013

Earlier this week, the headline “Ocupa México primer lugar mundial en obesidad; supera a EU” (Mexico in first place for obesity; more obese than the USA)  grabbed my attention. The headline appeared in the Mexican magazine Proceso, normally a stickler for getting its facts straight.

Last time we checked (October 2012)–Obesity in Mexico compared to other countries: bigger is not better–Mexico was in fourth place in the obesity league table, behind Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the USA. [Note that our ranking excludes several very small countries with higher rates of obesity, such as Nauru (71.1%), Cook Islands (64.1%), Marshall Islands (46.5%), Kiribati (45.8%) and St.Kitts-Nevis (40.9%).]

The Proceso article was based on the latest United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report entitled “The State of Food and Agriculture: Food Systems for a Better Nutrition

On reading the report, it turned out that Proceso had made an unaccustomed error. Mexico is not the most obese country in the world, but remains in fourth place, behind Saudi Arabia, Egypt and South Africa. Mexico has overtaken the USA but has itself been overtaken by South Africa. Normally, any time Mexico beats the USA, whatever the sport or event, it calls for a good old-fashioned celebration with some shots of tequila, but on this occasion, it raises some serious concerns about Mexico’s nutrition and health care strategies.

Obesity in adults is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a Body Mass Index (BMI) greater than or equal to 30, where BMI is defined as a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of his height in meters (kg/m2). Mexico’s rate (for adults), as quoted in the FAO report, had risen to 32.8% of the adult population, almost one in three. By way of comparison, the equivalent figures were 35.2% for Saudi Arabia and 34.6% for Egypt, while the USA rate fell slightly to 31.8%.

The FAO estimates that 12.5% of the world’s population (868 million people) are undernourished in terms of energy intake, yet these figures represent only a fraction of the global burden of malnutrition (over- and under-nutrition). An estimated 26% of the world’s children (under 5 years of age) are stunted, 2 billion people suffer from one or more micronutrient deficiencies and 1.4 billion people are overweight, of whom 500 million are obese.

Most countries are burdened by multiple types of malnutrition, which may coexist within the same country, household or individual.

The social cost of malnutrition, measured by the “disability-adjusted life years” (DALY) lost to child and maternal malnutrition and to overweight and obesity, is very high. Beyond the social cost, the cost to the global economy caused by malnutrition, as a result of lost productivity and direct health care costs, could account for as much as 5% of global gross domestic product (GDP), equivalent to US$3.5 trillion per year or US$500 per person.

The FAO stresses that, “The way we grow, raise, process, transport and distribute food influences what we eat,” and adds that improved food systems can make food more affordable, diverse and nutritious.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including using appropriate agricultural policies, investment and research to increase productivity; cutting food losses and waste, which currently amount to one third of the food produced for human consumption every year; and helping consumers make good dietary choices for better nutrition through education, information and other actions.

Among other recommendations is to make food systems more responsive to the needs of mothers and young children. FAO notes that malnutrition during the critical ‘first 1,000 days’ from conception can cause lasting damage to women’s health and life-long physical and cognitive impairment in children.

The agency cites several projects that have proved successful in raising nutrition levels such as the promotion of home gardens in West Africa; encouragement of mixed vegetable and animal farming systems together with income-generating activities in some Asian countries; and public-private partnerships to enrich products like yoghurt or cooking oil with nutrients.

Other figures for Mexico from the report:

  • 29.4% of children under five have anemia
  • 26.8% of children under five suffer from vitamin A deficiency
  •  8.5% of children under five have an iodine deficiency

Note: This post includes some paragraphs from the related FAO press release. Click here for the full text of the report (pdf file).

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Oct 062012

Considerable attention has been focused on Mexico’s obesity problem (see “Soft drinks, obesity, diabetes and public health in Mexico”). Obesity in adults is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a Body Mass Index (BMI) greater than or equal to 30, where BMI is defined as a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of his height in meters (kg/m2).

Mexico’s very high adult obesity rate of 30% is increasing every year. It is related to many factors, including increased consumption of processed fat and sugary foods. The average daily calories consumed by Mexican adults increased from 3102 in 1988 to 3266 in 2007.

Rates of "overweight" and "obese" adults in Mexico

Rates of “overweight” and “obese” adults in Mexico

Addressing Mexico’s serious obesity problem will require significant effort and dramatic behavioral change, first and foremost by families, but also by schools, government, industry and civic organizations. Most agree that long term solutions for limiting or reducing obesity should focus primary on children and youth. Obviously physical exercise and diet are crucial parts of a solution. Fortunately Mexico is already making efforts to address its child obesity problem (see “Mexico takes on childhood obesity”).

Obesity is quite complicated and may involve numerous heretofore unknown factors. The data are sometimes confusing. For example, Italian adults, with an obesity rate of only 10%, consumed on average a whooping 3646 calories per day in 2007, 380 more than Mexicans, whose obesity rate is three times that of Italy. (The data in this and the next paragraph come from Table 1 of the Milken Institute’s “Waistlines of the World”, August 2012). French adults consume far more calories than Mexican adults, and more fat the US adults, but their obesity rate is much lower, at only 11%. Furthermore, the French consume 50% more alcohol than Americans and almost three times more than Mexicans and yet they are much thinner. Though adults in Norway consume more calories than Mexicans (3169 versus 3102) their obesity rate is only a third that of Mexico (10% versus 30%). Obviously calorie intake is not the only factor and may not be the most important factor.

Mexican Manuel Uribe, one of the world's most obese individuals, enjoys a snack

Mexican Manuel Uribe (1965-2014), one of the world’s most obese individuals, succeeded in lowering his weight from 560 kg (1233 lbs) to 394 kg (867 lbs).

Obesity is also related to amount of physical activity, but here again the data are confusing. New Zealand adults have a high obesity rate of 27% though they live in one of the physically most active countries, with 49% engaging in “moderate physical activity” defined as light-to moderate activity for at least 30 minutes five times per week. On the other hand, only 27% of the relatively thin Italian adults engage in “moderate physical activity”. Why are obesity rates for the more active New Zealanders so much higher than those for the less active Italians, especially since the latter consume 544 more calories per day (3646 versus 3129)? By way of comparison, only 21% of Mexican and 23% of US adults engage in “moderate physical activity”.

How does Mexico’s growing obesity problem compare that of other countries? Data compiled by the World Health Organization (used by to compile “US and Global Obesity Levels: The Fat Chart)”) and the OECD in “Waistlines of the World provide a basis for comparing obesity rates in numerous countries (though see note [1] for reservations about using data from different years).

Country % obese Year of data
Saudi Arabia 35.6 2000
USA 33.8 2008
Egypt 30.3 2006
MEXICO 30.0 2006
Australia 26.4 2007
Canada 24.2 2008
U.K. 23.0 2009
Chile 21.9 2003
South Africa 21.6 1998
Germany 14.7 2009
Colombia 13.7 2007
France 11.2 2008
Brazil 11.1 2003
Italy 10.3 2009
China 5.7 2008
Japan 3.9 2009
South Korea 3.8 2009
Eritrea 3.3 2004
Indonesia 2.4 2001
India 1.9 2008

The data indicate that Mexico ranks 12th of 88 countries with an adult obesity rate of 30%, defined as body mass index (BMI) of over 30. While 12th of 88 does not sound so bad, the top six on the list are small island countries with obesity rates from 41% to 79% (Nauru, American Samoa, Tokelau, Tonga, Kiribati and French Polynesia). Also higher than Mexico are the relatively small countries of Panama and the United Arab Emirates. If these small countries are excluded then Mexico ranks 4th among major countries behind only Saudi Arabia, the USA and Egypt (see table).

Mexico trails several notable countries with high obesity rates between 20% and 30% such as Australia, Canada, UK, Chile and South Africa. (Given that obesity rates are increasing almost everywhere and South Africa’s data are from 1998, its current obesity rate is probably closer to 25% or more.)

The global data suggest that the obesity problem is most serious in Pacific Island nations, North America and the Middle East (including North Africa). It is also becoming a problem in several European and Latin American countries. It is less of a problem in Asia and Sub-Sahara Africa.

In conclusion, obesity is a very serious problem for Mexico today, and arguably one of the biggest problems facing humanity in the 21st century along with climate change and poverty.

Note [1]:

There are some significant differences between the WHO and OECD data sets. For example the WHO data for Mexico are from 2000 while the OECD data are from 2006. For our comparisons we use the most recent data available from the two data sets. Though obesity is an extremely important international problem, reliable data is not collected frequently in many countries. Obesity rates are based on measured height and weight, and are invariably higher than rates based on self reported height and weight. In our table, measured values are used for: the USA, Mexico, Australia, Canada, UK, Japan and South Korea; we are not sure about the rates for other countries.


For an updated post on this topic, with more data, please see: Mexico the 4th most obese country in the world

Eco-tortillas: an environmentally friendly way to make Mexico’s staple food

 Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Eco-tortillas: an environmentally friendly way to make Mexico’s staple food
Feb 092012

Mexican scientists continue to find ways to improve the humble tortilla, one of the essential components of Mexican cuisine and a major source of calcium for many Mexicans. We described two years ago how researchers at the Autonomous Metropolitan University of Mexico (UAM) had reduced pollution from the making of corn tortillas. This month, a press release from Cinvestav (Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados del Instituto Politécnico Nacional) reveals that researchers have developed a way to reduce the amount of lime required in the making of tortillas, while enhancing their dietary value. This will further reduce the pollution and ecological footprint associated with tortilla making:

Researchers have developed “environmentally friendly tortillas” that are more nutritious, help prevent osteoporosis, slow the aging process and help fight obesity. A team led by Juan de Dios Figueroa Cárdenas, of Cinvestav’s unit in Queretaro, developed an environmentally-friendly method to turn gourmet corn into tortillas that have a high nutritional content and double the shelf life, without increasing the price of the final product.

The current process used to make tortillas is “highly polluting” and “not very efficient,” resulting in tortillas that “in many cases do not contain the fiber or calcium” people need. Given the importance of tortillas in the Mexican diet since pre-Columbian times, researchers worked on developing a process that “does not produce pollutants” and replaces lime, a corrosive substance, with salts and other ingredients in the cooking process. The use of other salts retains the outer layers of corn kernels during cooking and preserves a large amount of nutrients that end up being lost in the existing process and generating an enormous amount of pollution and wasted water.

The tortillas are also useful in fighting obesity (a huge problem in Mexico) because they contain double the fiber of a traditional tortilla, Figueroa Cárdenas said, adding that the tortillas’ high calcium content will help prevent osteoporosis.

[This post is based on the text of the press release]

Tortilla-making. Photo: krebsmaus07 (Flickr)

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Review of Jeffrey M. Pilcher’s “¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the making of Mexican Identity”

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Jun 022011

Are you interested in the geography of Mexico’s regional cuisines or the historical relationships between food preparation methods and gender roles in Mexican society? If so, add ¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the making of Mexican Identity by Jeffrey Pilcher to your “Books Wanted” list.

Pilcher’s lively and entertaining account analyzes how the history of food in Mexico has been intimately tied to the country’s evolving national identity. The connections have become widely recognized, so much so that UNESCO recently conferred Intangible Cultural Heritage status on traditional Mexican cuisine, especially that of the state of Michoacán.

Pilcher cover of Que Vivan Los TamalesIn every chapter, Pilcher delves into the details. He explains how Mexico’s elites strongly preferred dishes based on wheat (first introduced into Mexico by early colonists) to those based on corn, one of Mexico’s many contributions to world cuisine. Indeed, they went so far as to argue that, across the globe, societies based on corn or rice would never rise above those based on wheat.

True appreciation of Mexico’s indigenous foods developed only slowly, mirroring the gradual development of nationalism, before coming to be considered a key component of the national identity. The advent of the railways in the 19th century allowed exotic foodstuffs to be marketed throughout the country for the first time. National cookbooks began to appear, highlighting the distinctive dishes of different regions, a trend continued to the present-day.

Technological developments have brought many changes. With industrialization, the time-consuming preparation of traditional corn tortillas was gradually superseded, especially in urban environments, by machine-made tortillas, whose taste is considered by connoisseurs to be greatly inferior to that of their hand-made equivalents, now increasingly restricted to relatively remote rural areas. Each step in the industrialization of tortillas brought massive social changes. Traditionally, the production of tortillas was the preserve of womenfolk, one of their numerous daily household chores. When mechanized tortilla presses were introduced, the making of tortillas quickly became an acceptable occupation for men. Freedom from the arduous work involved in making tortillas daily from scratch allowed women time to pursue other activities and to enter the formal workforce.

Gender, race, social class, dietary preferences, the fusion of indigenous cuisine and techniques with ingredients and methods imported from Europe and elsewhere… all are explored in this fascinating book.

Mexico’s cuisine is justly famous for its extraordinary regional variety; in just a few decades, the essential ingredients for Mexican food have become global commodities, appearing on supermarket shelves in dozens of countries around the world. Pilcher’s book puts this success in context, making it an essential read for anyone interested in the geography and history of Mexican cuisine.

Details (link is to ¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the making of Mexican Identity by Jeffrey M. Pilcher (University of New Mexico Press, 1998).

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For more about Mexican cuisine, visit the amazing award-winning blog Mexico Cooks! and also browse the huge selection of recipes, articles and tips about all aspects of Mexcan food and cooking in the “Cuisine” section of MexConnect. ¡Buen provecho!

Mexico City’s wholesale food market, Central de Abasto

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Jul 072010

Have you ever wondered how food supplies are organized in a metropolitan area the size of Mexico City (population 20 million) so that all its inhabitants have regular access to fresh produce? Like most major world cities, Mexico City has a specialized wholesale market for food, Central de Abasto. It is located in Iztapalapa, south-east of the city center.

Nicola Twilley, a freelance writer currently based in Montreal, has written a wonderfully informative description of what a visit to the Central de Abasto is like on her fascinating blog edible geography

Map of Central de Abasto, Mexico City

Map of Central de Abasto, Mexico City. Click to enlarge.

The map is the “official” map of the Central de Abasto in all its glory. While I often organized market surveys for school groups in Mexico, I have to admit that I never dared take on the challenge of surveying the Central de Abasto. This map, and Twilley’s fun account of the market reminds me why I never had the courage!

Mexican markets, in all their guises, from the massive Central de Abasto down to a humble tianguis (street market) in a small village, are a fascinating aspect of Mexico’s geography, and well worth a book in their own right.



Reducing pollution from the making of corn tortillas

 Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Reducing pollution from the making of corn tortillas
Mar 202010

The traditional way of turning corn (maize) into tortillas pollutes large volumes of water and uses copious amounts of energy. Researchers at the biotechnology department of the Autonomous Metropolitan University of Mexico (UAM) are developing a greatly improved “greener” way of  making tortillas.

Tortilla-making. Photo: krebsmaus07 (Flickr)

Tortillas cost less than a dollar a kilo in Mexico, but price rises for corn (and therefore tortillas) in recent years have caused the consumption of tortillas to fall to about 80 kg per person each year. According to the National Institute of Nutrition, tortillas account for about 45% of all the  calories consumed in Mexico.

Conventional tortilla mills cook the corn in a solution of calcium hydroxide (limewater) and then ground it into a dough. The process, known as nixtamalization, was originally developed in pre-Hispanic times. A ball of dough is then flattened into a round which is cooked on both sides on a hot comal to produce a tortilla. Residue from the nixtamalization proces contains starches, cellulose and calcium and is discarded into local drains.

About 54% of all the tortillas consumed in the country are made this way. The remainder come from a ground corn-flour mix to which water must be added to form a dough, marketed by giant commercial producers such as Maseca and Minsa.

Processing a single kilogram of corn for tortillas the conventional way requires two liters of water. There are 20,000 corn mills in Mexico; each one can pollute more than 1,000 liters of water every day. The UAM researchers were able to reduce pollution by conventional mills by 80% simply by introducing a more efficient filtering system for the cooked mass, allowing more dough to be extracted.

The researchers have now turned their attention to energy usage. Using solar energy to help heat the water should reduce the amount of natural gas required by as much as 40%. This could save mills a considerable amount of money. Each mid-sized mill (supplying dough to an average of 10 tortilla factories) spends about 2,300 dollars a month on energy.