University of the Free State: From the land to the lab, tested maize products become a livelihood for rural women

“Maize is widely regarded as one of the most crucial agricultural products globally, serving as a staple food in many countries. It is estimated that by 2050, the demand for maize in developing countries would have doubled and that by 2025, it will become the crop with the highest global production,” says Dr Alba du Toit, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sustainable Food Systems and Development.

She believes the efficient use of grains such as maize could reduce food insecurity and malnutrition in South Africa.

In 2021, the department – with its expertise and state-of-the-art facilities for food product development and sensory analysis – joined forces with Grain SA in a project to develop innovative food products for low-income communities in South Africa.

In this project, which will address two of South Africa’s major challenges, namely household food security and job creation, the group of scientists looked at a process called nixtamalisation.

The nixtamalisation process

Dr Du Toit explains the nixtamalisation process. “In this exercise, the dried maize kernels are cooked and soaked overnight in an alkaline solution (lime water), washed, and hulled. The cooking and soaking process causes the outer covering of the maize to soften, resulting in it being easily separated and washed from the maize kernels. This product is now called nixtamal.”

“After washing, the nixtamal could be ground to form a soft maize dough called masa. The nixtamal could also be ground coarsely to make wet masa crumbs that are dried in the oven. Once the masa crumbs are dry, they are ground even more finely to make a more refined flour that could be used in the same way as regular maize meal,” she adds.

Although most people prefer white maize, yellow maize or any colour of dried maize kernels is safe for human food use and can make tasty and nutritious masa.

Benefits of nixtamalisation

Nixtamalisation provides several benefits over unprocessed grains and can address some of the nutritional issues facing South Africans.

One of the benefits of nixtamalisation is that it removes 100% of aflatoxins, the toxic compounds produced by moulds during the storage of dried maize kernels, which can cause liver damage and cancer. The nixtamalisation process can also increase the nutritional value of maize, preventing malnourishment, especially the disease known as pellagra. The starch granules that are easier to digest; the maize that is easier to ground and processed, and the flavour of the maize that is improved, are some of the other benefits of this process.

Dr Du Toit says that any dish made with regular maize flour can be made using nixtamalised maize flour, with the benefit that it contains more nutrients.

Addressing socio-economic challenges

Besides its ability to contribute to food security, the project also has the likelihood of empowering women to start their own businesses.

Dr Du Toit says that through community training and product development, as well as business model development, many socio-economic challenges and food insecurity in low-income communities can be addressed in South Africa.

PhD and master’s students in the department have worked to develop recipes and products that could be easily produced, packaged, and marketed by women from low-income communities. In August 2021, a recipe booklet containing twenty developed recipes was produced and supplied to Grain SA.

The products that were developed, only used equipment that is available to the women. “A coffee mug serves as a measuring cup, a bottle as a rolling pin, and an upside-down jar as a cookie-cutter for the corn chips,” describes Dr Du Toit.

UFS Sensory Lab tests

According to her, they initially tested several products in the university’s state-of-the-art Sensory Lab. However, the two products that have been selected and are currently being developed, are dried putu pap (to be reconstituted in a flash) by Sisipho Rebe, and crispy corn chips by Taylon Colbert, both master’s students.

Testing consumers’ interest and reaction, the product was subjected to a range of tests. Under the guidance of Dr Carina Bothma, expert adviser in the Sensory Lab and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sustainable Food Systems and Development, they used the jar test as well as the consumers’ overall liking test.

“A jar score means that 75% of the participants in the sensory tests give the just-about-right score to attributes such as taste, mouthfeel (texture), appearance, and aroma. Only then can the product be approved as being good enough. Using hedonic scaling in the consumer test, they determined the acceptability of the products’ appearance, aroma, taste, mouthfeel, and overall acceptability,” explains Dr Du Toit.

Identifying potential entrepreneurs

She says in the final step of the project, they will identify potential entrepreneurs who will receive guidance and training in business start-up, roll-out, and application. Pilot businesses will be set up and monitored; based on research, it will be decided whether these businesses will be upscaled to fully commercial and economically viable units.