Maya Nut – A Rediscovered Ancient Mayan Staple

The Maya Nut is a prime example of a lost indigenous knowledge about nutrition, which has been very recently rediscovered.  The Maya Nut is actually not a really a nut, it is the seed of a very large forest tree named Brosimum alicastrum, which is in the fig family (Moraceae).   There are over 75 indigenous names for these trees, but is most commonly referred to as Arbol del Ramon and Ojoche.  

brosimum alicastrum

Brosimum Alicastrum tree

These huge trees were a dominant species which covered a wide range from Central Mexico to Northern Brazil.  Pre-hispanic cultures prized them for their seeds which were a very important staple food, particularly because they could be stored for long periods of time and could be used as food reserves.  This was important during periods of drought, warfare and famine.  The seeds were also a major food source for wild birds, mammals and other forest wildlife.

Unfortunately within the last couple decades, deforestation of this region has severely limited their numbers.  Today, it is estimated that forest deforestation for livestock and planting commercial crops has decimated the Maya Nut to only 5% of the original cover.   This is extremely detrimental to the forest biodiversity and the wildlife which depend on it for food and shelter.   In such forest ecosystems, plants and animals are very interdependent, and removing such a major component has extremely destructive consequences for countless species, including humans.  The free ranging cattle that replace the forest eat the Maya Nut seedlings, so there are no new trees to replace the old ones.  The Maya Nut trees are in danger of becoming extinct, and as these trees have been cut down, the knowledge about the nutritional value of the Maya Nut has also been lost.   Many rural communities are actually going hungry and are malnourished, even though they have Maya Nut growing all around them!

img source: http://mayanutinstitute.org/

Regrowing Maya Nut Trees. source: http://mayanutinstitute.org/

Thankfully some people have taken an interest in these trees and are working toward saving this species and educating people about their value.  The Maya Nut Institute, a non-profit public charity, was developed in 2001 to rescue the lost indigenous knowledge about the Maya Nut for food, fodder and ecosystem services in rural communities throughout the historic range of the Maya Nut tree.  They have trained and empowered women in rural communities of various countries to harvest and process the Maya Nut so that they can earn a living while preserving this native tree.   Furthermore the Maya Nut Institute has a reforestation program to regrow some of the lost trees.  Since this program began, Maya Nut partners have planted more than 2,000,000 Maya Nut trees in Haiti, Colombia, Guatemala, Peru, Honduras, Nicaragua and Mexico.

The Maya Nut Institute also educates local farmers and businesses about their nutritional and ecological value.  Some of the most notable achievements include educating local farmers to grow and use Maya Nut as fodder for their livestock, which has been very successful because the Maya Nut tree is much more resistant to climate change than grass pasture, can also be stored for long periods and provides excellent nutrition for the animals.  In Haiti, over 100,000 Maya Nut trees have been planted, effectively restoring it to the Haitian biome, where it has been extinct for hundreds of years!

Health Benefits:

Maya Nut contains many important nutrients and is rich in fiber, calcium, magnesium, potassium, folate, and antioxidants.  Traditionally, this seed was used by native people and traditional healers as a remedy to treat a wide variety of ailments, which included colitis, arthritis, osteoporosis, asthma, infertility and lactation problems.  Recent scientific chemical studies done on Maya Nut supports some of these claims, most notably about colitis and asthma because Maya Nut is extremely high in anti-inflammatory compounds that would effectively treat these conditions.  Maya Nut is also high in calcium and magnesium, which supports the local people’s claims that it is good for arthritis and osteoporosis.

Maya Nut has been tested and proven by the FDA to contain no toxic alkaloids or allergens. It is not affected by aflatoxins and is 100% gluten and caffeine free. It has a low (<29) Glycemic Index, indicating it is safe to eat for diabetics or those on a low carbohydrate diet.

How to Eat Maya Nut:

Maya Nut seeds can be eaten both raw and roasted and can be added to a wide variety of recipes.  It is a very versatile food which is only limited by your imagination.  Below we will list some of the more traditional uses.

maya-nut-food

Baked goods made with Maya Nut source: http://mayanutinstitute.org/

Raw – The raw Maya Nut seed is eaten by boiling it, and has been described to have a taste similar to potatoes.  It can be diced, mashed, ground or pickled to create delicious sweet or savory dishes.  Unfortunately no fresh Maya Nut is available to purchase, so finding fresh Maya Nut will depend on finding them yourself under the tree.  In the USA, the Maya Nut tree currently only grows in parts of Florida.

Roasted – Most people will only have the opportunity to try the Maya Nut once it has been dried, roasted and ground.  The Maya Nut powder has a unique and bold flavor which is a bit similar to cacao or roasted coffee bean, and can be used in a similar way.   Some popular uses are in breads, cookies, sauces, drinks, tortillas and salads.  Once it has been dried, it cannot be rehydrated or cooked, and can be stored for up to 5 years with no effect on its flavor.

For more information about the Maya Nut and the Maya Nut Institute, click on their website link here: http://mayanutinstitute.org/

References:

http://mayanutinstitute.org/

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