Mexico’s Secret Weapon to Fight Climate Change? Ancient Superfoods
By Patricia Zavala Gutiérrez, GPJ
Native species like ojoche and mesquite have disappeared from most Mexicans’ daily diets, but as the country confronts food insecurity and the effects of climate change, scientists tout their nutritional and ecological benefits.
Acatlan de Pérez
ACATLÁN DE PÉREZ FIGUEROA, MEXICO — In these parts, Guadalupe Anaya Miguel is known as la señora del ojoche. Her kitchen is her pride of place. Here, she smells and tastes. She boils, toasts and grinds. She weighs and calculates. She mixes. This is where Anaya has collected 26 years’ worth of data, recipes and stories about the ramón, or nuez maya, as the ojoche is also known in Spanish — information that she disseminates among rural communities in her region.
The ojoche tree, which produces a large seed with a thin, citrusy skin, is found in central and southern Mexico; across Central America; as far south as Colombia, Peru and Venezuela; and in the Caribbean islands of Cuba, Jamaica and Trinidad. Some researchers believe that ojoche — which tastes like potato or jícama when raw, like chocolate when ground into flour or toasted, and has the consistency and fragrance of chickpeas when boiled — was once a staple for Mayan people. In the modern age, however, it has been relegated to a famine food. Today, most people are unaware that it is edible.
When Anaya would hold workshops, she would first ask, “What do you make here?”
“The most typical thing: tamales,” the home cooks would usually respond.
“Well then, we’re going to make some tamales with ojoche.”
This, Anaya says, was usually met with surprise. People had only ever heard of animals eating ojoche. “And I’d say, ‘No, we’re going to make use of it — and you’re going to see the benefit it has for children.’”
Anaya knew little of these benefits until she met Cecilia Sánchez Garduño, a doctor of ecology and an expert on the nutritional benefits of ojoche. During a workshop with Sánchez, Anaya was startled to learn that communities in southeastern Mexico had relied on the seed to survive war and famine. In the municipality where she lives, less than 30% of the population has access to nutritious food, so ojoche can be an important addition to the diet. Ojoche seeds can be used fresh, as a replacement for corn, or dry, as a substitute for flour or coffee. Notably, foraged food, such as ojoche, is available even as water sources dwindle and the climate becomes more erratic.
Conflict, extreme weather and economic disturbances have intensified food insecurity across the world, according to a 2022 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Consequently, there are increasing efforts to help communities reincorporate food alternatives into their regular diet — and, in Anaya’s case, to help Mexicans see the ojoche tree as far more than a source of timber and firewood.
As time goes by, people no longer remember the nutritious food their ancestors once ate, says agroecologist Gerardo Ruiz Smith. He was inspired by the strategic vision of Sánchez and the Maya Nut Institute — an international nongovernmental organization that promotes the use of ojoche in local diets, where Sánchez was previously Mexico country director — to investigate the food potential of mesquite, a tree native to dry areas in the Americas, once valued for the sweetness of its seedpods and the hardness of its wood. He recalls an exchange with a professor in the United States that set him on this path.
“You in Mexico are very fortunate, aren’t you? So much mesquite, all that potential for food,” the professor said.
“Hold on — what are you talking about? If that tree were edible, of course I would know about it,” he thought. “Because I grew up surrounded by mesquite trees.” He went home and began researching — and felt he was short-circuiting inside. Later, he stumbled across a packet of 300 grams of mesquite flour in an organic store in Mexico City — it had been produced in Peru, branded in the United States and imported into Mexico with a price tag of 400 Mexican pesos ($21.72).
“When I saw that, it was too much,” he says. “I said, ‘No, something must be done.’”
From that day on, his raison d’être became to return to Mexico “to promote this great ally that has fed the human populations of Mexico — and for thousands of years, even before the domestication of corn, since the time when humans arrived in North America.” For the past four years, Ruiz has organized the Festival Comunitario del Mezquite in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. Mesquite trees require little water or maintenance — and, in fact, replenish the soil by restoring its nitrogen content. The event highlights the species’s potential in combating food insecurity and desertification and invites people “to try recipes, dishes, beverages … to rescue that pre-Hispanic indigenous gastronomic tradition that has almost completely been lost in Mexico.”
Not everyone is quick to adopt mesquite as a source of food, however. In many communities, says Ruiz, mesquite trees are more valued as a source of lumber or fuel, and in agricultural areas, they are typically regarded as a nuisance: stripped or chopped, with their seeds strewn on the ground, without people realizing these can be ground and used as flour.
In Puebla, Mauricio Mora Tello can relate to Ruiz’s challenges. In both urban and rural areas, Mora says, people only tend to eat locally recognized foods, often rooted in tradition — but reject alternatives, even if they are superfoods or are appreciated in other parts of the world. Mora promotes the production, processing and consumption of bamboo shoots — including native varieties people don’t recognize as bamboo — through an independent school in Ahuata, a community in the region of Teziutlán, where 50% of its 103,583 residents live in poverty. Incorporating these varieties in local dishes has not been easy, says Mora, but local cooks have come up with innovative recipes: chunks of bamboo in corn tamales, shoots pickled in an acidic marinade called escabeche, or preserved in piloncillo or raw cane syrup. Mora is also working with a private university to produce bamboo chips and cookies with bamboo fiber and flour.
Anaya, Ruiz, Mora and other advocates of food alternatives have not only enlisted traditional cooks to incorporate them into local dishes, they are also working with nutritionists to further assess their health benefits, marketing experts to popularize them, and environmentalists to expound upon their future benefits, given that all three species are climate-resilient and help the soil retain water and nutrients. They stress that flour made from ojoche, mesquite or bamboo is a highly nutritious alternative that can substitute for the refined — and less healthy — varieties of flour on the market.
“We are currently dealing with a very fast-moving food transition that has had serious consequences for our health,” says Mahelet Lozada Aranda, head of the Canastas Regionales del Bien Comer project at Mexico’s national commission for biodiversity knowledge and use. In Mexico, daily caloric intake is far above the optimal amount as denoted by the Food and Agriculture Organization, with an increasing reliance on animal protein and fats. “Which is why it is important to value the local foods we have,” says Lozada, whose project works to promote biodiverse agriculture and “the consumption of local foods produced or gathered by rural families.”
For Anaya, Ruiz and Mora, what is most important is that more people know about the food alternatives growing around them and are able to, first and foremost, consume them in a sustainable way — and then sell any surplus product in a market with fair regulations. Despite the challenges, they are proud of the small changes taking root in their communities, especially in the face of increasing food insecurity.
“The fact that they could bring one more ingredient to the table, that they have it at hand,” Mora says. “Well, good.”