SAN ILDEFONSO, Mexico -- At just 1 month old, Maria Isabel Esquivel is chubby, smiling and alert, and her older brother and sisters now run with bounding strides through the family's tiny cornfield in this dirt-poor Indian village.
The vigor of the Esquivel children brings to life the startling statistics that are emerging from several ambitious nutrition projects in the Mexican countryside.
The goal is nothing short of transforming the humble tortilla, Mexico's corn-based staple food, into a protein-fortified "supertortilla" that would give a nutritional boost to the nearly 20 million Mexicans who live in extreme poverty.
The tortilla, Mexico's equivalent of bread, has long been a symbol of Mexican cuisine and culture. This is the cradle of corn itself, first cultivated by the ancestors of the Aztecs about 6,000 years ago and revered as a sacred source of life.
But the tortilla is richer in tradition than nutrition. The hard fact is that the poorer the modern-day Mexican, the more his survival depends on the unleavened corn disks -- often accompanied only by a scoop of refried beans.
The tortilla, wrote pioneer Mexican nutritionist Salvador Zubiran, "has been the luck and the disgrace of Mexicans: the luck because it has given us daily sustenance, and the disgrace because its nutritional deficiencies have limited the development of much of the population."
Now, however, a flurry of initiatives at the federal and state level intends to make the tortilla a means to deliver better nutrition to the very poorest, whose levels of malnutrition rank among the worst in the hemisphere.
"The poorest families in Mexico get 70 percent of their nutrition from tortillas," says Felipe de Jesus Preciado, a federal congressman who has proposed that both cornmeal and traditional corn dough be fortified. "So enriched tortillas are the perfect vehicle to reach the poor."
A substantial first step -- an agreement by the nation's cornmeal makers to add vitamins and minerals to tortilla cornmeal -- became effective in March. The major cornmeal manufacturers are adding a blend of six vitamins and minerals to all commercially sold tortilla cornmeal, the base for about half the tortillas eaten in Mexico. (The rest are made from traditional "nixtamal" dough, which is harder to enrich than dry cornmeal powder.)
But the real opportunity, nutritionists argue, is to enrich tortillas with protein-rich soy, not just vitamins -- ideally in all tortillas sold commercially, but at least in targeted poverty-relief programs.
Otomi Indian families in San Ildefonso, a collection of villages in the central state of Queretaro, are the guinea pigs for the most extensive protein-enrichment project, carried out by the government-run National Nutrition Institute. They have no doubt about the benefits.
"Before, my children fainted in school for lack of energy," says Juana Quirino, a 42-year-old mother of six. "Now, they have gained weight, and they're stronger."
The results, to be published within a few weeks, are "very, very impressive," in the words of project leader Dr. Adolfo Chavez, head of the institute's applied nutrition department. "The malnutrition dropped by half, and very rapidly." Height, birth weight, immunity, and physical and mental capacity all improved.
The people of San Ildefonso agree.
"All of our children are stronger, and we are too," says Francisco Esquivel, whose family in El Rincon has eaten the fortified tortillas throughout the three-year test period. "Our first child was born malnourished, but Maria Isabel weighed 7.7 pounds when she was born. And she is happier, she has more energy, and she is more awake."
The Esquivels are typical of the poorest rural Mexicans. Francisco earns about $27 a week fashioning traditional clay pots and ornaments. He has just more than half an acre on the edge of the canyon to grow corn for tortillas and some beans. The seven family members share the single concrete-floored room in their low-ceilinged stone house.
They eat meat only once or twice a month, and when they can afford it a bit of soup, rice and grilled nopal cactus. They hardly ever eat fresh vegetables.
The United Nations Children's Fund, which is helping to pay for several rural tortilla-enrichment initiatives, has declared the initial results positive.
Dr. Rafael Camacho, a senior adviser in the Health Ministry who helped broker the national vitamin-enrichment agreement, says Mexico's three major cornmeal manufacturers have all begun adding the agreed vitamins and minerals: thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid, iron and zinc.
But it is uncertain whether Mexico will quickly move beyond vitamin enrichment, which is common for foodstuffs in developed countries, and adopt the protein-fortified tortillas.
The vitamin and mineral additives are inexpensive, at about three-tenths of a cent per pound. But the soy-based protein enrichment is substantially more costly. Adding 6 percent soy to cornmeal increases the cost by about 10 percent, which, Camacho says, consumers and producers will resist.
He argues that whereas vitamin and mineral enrichment benefits everyone, only poorer Mexicans suffer from protein deficiencies, so it would make sense to reach them through focused poverty programs.
'Proper mix of foods'
Still, Camacho says, though there may be useful roles for targeted protein-enriched tortilla programs, "no one should mythologize the tortilla. Nutrition is not solved through one food alone -- it is a matter of achieving the proper mix of foods."
Project leader Chavez estimates that it would cost the government no more than $85 million per year to enrich tortilla with protein for 8 million extremely malnourished Mexicans who live in 10 critical zones. That cost, he notes, would be far less than the $2 billion in subsidies that once kept tortillas cheap for all Mexicans, regardless of their income.
Chavez is convinced that poor people can and will pay the extra 1.5 cents a pound for enriched tortilla meal as they get to know the benefits.
Only three companies -- Grupo Maseca, Grupo Minsa and Agroinsa -- control production of cornmeal, making the enrichment program easier to manage. And scientists have improved the taste of soy additives so that they no longer cause unpalatable taste changes.
Resistance to soy
It is more difficult and more expensive to add soy protein to nixtamal dough than to dry cornmeal flour. Because the nixtamal tortillas are produced by a highly fragmented industry, numbering about 47,000 storefront factories throughout the country, it would be harder to implement and monitor a protein-enrichment program.
Traditional nixtamal millers, likening themselves to neighborhood bread bakers defending the consumer against mass-produced white bread, oppose any mandatory enrichment schemes without government help.
The lifting of subsidies and price controls for the entire tortilla industry in January, which heightened competition and tightened margins, makes the nixtamal producers even more nervous about any imposed costs that might put them at a disadvantage.
Pub Date: 9/15/99