Corn Tortillas: A Gluten-Free Food Most People Overlook

Tuesday Sep 17 | BY |
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I used to spend every winter in Costa Rica, for about five or six years in a row. It’s there that I developed a taste for traditional corn tortillas. In Costa Rica, they accompany every meal. They serve an important role on the diet, although not as much as in other countries like Mexico.

In spite of all the anti-carb propaganda, I think traditional corn tortillas are excellent, especially home-made ones. They’ve been used for thousands of years by the Mayans, and later exported to many latino countries of the world.

The corn tortillas that I’m talking about are relatively small and white. In some countries, they can be blue or yellow as well.

In the US many people can tell the difference between flour tortillas and traditional corn tortillas, because of Mexican cuisine. However, many people I meet don’t really understand what I mean by traditional corn tortillas.

A regular flour tortilla will contain wheat flour, along with some fat and salt. They are big, soft, and used to make burritos.

Traditional corn tortillas are usually white, and don’t contain any added fat or salt. They are not made with the vegetable “corn” but rather white maize. This type of corn is richer in protein and much more nutritious.

To soften the corn, it’s soaked in an alkaline solution, usually lime (calcium hydroxide). This makes the corn more digestible, and has the added benefit of leaving lots of calcium in the tortillas. It softens the kernel, releasing the germ, and lets the corn convert nutrients such as the B vitamins into forms that are easily absorbable by the body. This essential step turns basic corn into a “superfood.”

Traditional corn tortillas only contain ground corn, water, with lime used in the process — if they are made the traditional way. The only fat they contain is the natural fat contained in the corn.

So what’s great about them?

As a source of carb coming from cereals, corn tortillas are almost ideal.

  • 100 grams of those will give you a whooping 5 grams of fiber.
  • They’re high in calcium, about 170 mg. for that 100 grams serving.
  • Protein is decent: 6 grams.
  • And they contain a good amount of vitamin B12, magnesium, and potassium.

One of the added benefits of those tortillas is the lack of salt. Only 11 mg. per 100 grams serving!

On the other hand, flour tortillas contain 482 mg. per 100 g. serving!

And let’s not forget the fact that corn tortillas are 100% gluten-free.

Some people don’t like corn tortillas because they are bland and grainy in texture. But I like them just for that reason. Once you heat them up quickly, they become soft. Because the taste is more neutral, it accentuates the  flavors of the other foods you’ll put in them.

If you’re familiar with Tex-Mex cuisine, you know that corn tortillas are used to make “soft-shell” tacos.

Most people who only grew up with “El Paso” tacos think that tacos are made with hard-shell tacos. But no… soft corn tortillas are used for what is called a “taco” in many latino countries.

I use corn tortillas to replace bread in most situations. You can eat them with guacamole and other topics, with eggs in the morning instead of toast. You can use them as a side for pretty much any food that you might want to “scoop” on top.

Where to Buy Corn Tortillas

You can make your own corn tortillas, but for that you’ll need a tortilla press, and white corn flour processed with lime. Those things can be purchased at latino markets.

I prefer to purchase them pre-made, from a local latino store that makes them the traditional way. Make sure to ask them for the ingredient list.

But… nothing tastes better than fresh corn tortillas. If you have the chance to try them one day, it’s worth it.

UPDATE: Most corn is GMO so if you wish to avoid GMO-corn, you’ll need to purchase organic corn tortillas or flour. 

Frederic Patenaude

Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.

46 COMMENTS ON THIS POST

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  1. Isn’t all Corn now grown GMO? Is there supposed source for any non-GMO? How would one know if really GMO free?

    • Gary Collier says:

      YELLOW corn has to be avoided because most of it is GM corn. All other varieties of corn — white, black, red, pink, blue, purple — are all safe because they haven’t started genetically modifying those types of corn (yet).

  2. Frederic,
    I love corn tortillas and would love to make my own with the white corn flour you mentioned, but I am very concerned that most corn is now genetically modified (GMO). How does one know where the flour is coming from and if it is or is not GM? Also, do you have a recipe?
    Thanking you in advance for your response,
    Eva Louise

    • The only way is to buy organic corn flour or organic corn tortillas. As for a recipe, they are actually a little tricky to make, that’s why I suggest watching some videos on YouTube on how to make them. You definitely need a tortilla press!

  3. sheree says:

    I love corn tortillas and used to eat them all the time.. but what about GMO’s? According to statistics.. approx 90% of corn contains cancer causing Gmo’s!

    • There are many ways to look at this. You can find organic corn tortillas in some areas. You have to decide what’s your priority. You will never see me write an article about GMOs because I think my position on the topic will not agree with many readers. I personally think it’s not “black and white.” But, you have to decide what’s your priority. I do eat both conventional and organic corn tortillas. Many health food stores sell frozen corn tortillas that are organic. While not as tasty as fresh corn tortillas, they have the same health benefits and are made with organic corn.

      • Dana says:

        So basically what you’re saying is you, personally, are NOT that concerned about ingesting GMOs. Interesting. Well, you are right, we all need to do what we think is best for us, making the best decisions for our health. But I say it IS black and white when it comes to GMOs and I prefer not to consciously ingest them.

  4. Catiya says:

    You forgot to consider that most corn is genetically modified.

  5. In this day and age of GMO’s, I would look for certified organic corn tortillas. A large percentage of corn in the US is GMO now, so I buy only certified organic. The ones I buy also happened to be made with sprouted corn.

  6. grace says:

    I love corn tortillas! I live in Nicaragua and eat them all the time 🙂

  7. Dana says:

    That was MY first thought. The GMO concern since last I heard, at least 80% of the corn today is GMO. I suppose the only way to avoid GMO corn tortillas is to only purchase from a company who specifically makes organic non-GMO corn tortillas—otherwise, chances are, it will be coming from GMO corn. I have to say, I was quite shocked that the GMO concern was not even addressed in this article. Hmmm.

  8. Sarah says:

    How is it possible for cron tortillas to contain vitamin B12?

  9. Nicole says:

    Thank you for the article. I love corn tortillas and have turned to them as my ‘bread’ since going gluten free. I have been reading lately that corn is also a grain that many people are intolerant to and I should consider eliminating it from my diet as well. What are your thoughts on that? I am gluten intolerant for sure. Also, I have not yet visited my local Latino store, but I’m guessing they do not carry organic tortillas. They would need to be organic to be sure they aren’t GMO, correct? I am assuming you are only advocating for organic corn tortillas?
    Thanks much for your insight.

  10. Nomi says:

    Hi Fred. Thanks for this article. I love home made tortilla’s and I recently learned how to make them simply without a tortilla press. I have a friend staying with me who is from Mexico. I buy Maseca brand Masa which is corn meal flour. It’s ingredients are: selected corn treated with lime
    The recipe is on the bag: 2 cups masa, 1/4 teaspoon salt, approximately 1 1/3 cup of water. Mix well to form a soft dough. Then we just form thin patties in our hands. Heat in a dry skillet. If you make them a bit thicker, once heated you slit them to insert –what ever-that is called a Gordita.
    Since it’s more important for me to avoid gluten than to eat raw food, I enjoy making these once in awhile. They do keep pretty well wrapped tightly and refrigerated.
    As for GMO I asked my friend, who thinks that there isn’t any GMO corn in Mexico but of course I am not sure of that. I am sure that I have to eat though. So instead of eating the same things day after day I enjoy a lot of variety which I feel besides giving me the many nutrients I need, also helps to avoid consuming a lot of any one type of food some of which could be unknowingly less desirable.

  11. I love corn tortillas and because I eat gluten-free, they are one of my staple foods. Even then I try not too eat too many or eat them too often as I believe that variety is the spice of life and helps you live better.

    It is easy to make tortillas especially if you don’t have a local place to buy them.

    I want to encourage people to buy organic masa because almost all other corn likely contains GMOs. If you do see it labeled NON-GMO Verified then it is OK. Otherwise you are taking your chances. In my mind, it doesn’t make sense to do that.

    I just attended the National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa, CA and heard Jeffrey Smith of the Institute for Responsible Technology speak about the dangers of eating GMO products. My goal is to avoid them. What about you?

    • Personally, and I don’t speak for Renegade Health here, but only for myself, I think that the issue with GMOs is a little more complex than just labeling them wholesale as “good” or “evil.” We all know about the concerns, the abuse of certain companies, the problems, and so on. But when it comes to GMOs being a clear “danger for health” I think it requires a bit more thinking than that. I suggest reading the book “Tomorrow’s Table” by Pamela C. Ronald for another perspective. I’m not saying that I necessarily endorse it, but for myself, I’ve decided that avoiding GMOs is not my priority or even my concern. And you can feel free to disagree completely or think I’m crazy. Read my last article on Renegade Health “The 80/20 Rule of Health”. Regardless of this, my article on corn tortillas was about the food itself. You can decide what you’re going to do about the GMO question. This is a debate that I’m not going to open up in my articles.

  12. V says:

    that’s all wonderful however corn is a GMO product and you will find it in abundance in local stores. Even organic producers can’t really certify that their product is GMO free. I love corn and had started using more corn in our diet as our daughter is on a gluten free diet but after my findings I felt that I was treading something that’s bad for her to something that is even more evil. I really think you should be more cautious with your statements.

  13. Aaron Mann says:

    In addition to GMO’s, a lot of corn is stored in silos where it can become contaminated with fungus that produce mycotoxins in our bodies.

  14. Elena says:

    Hi Fred, I am in the Vancouver area and just wondering what latino store you purchased the organic tortillas from, I’d love to get my hands on them.

    Much appreciated!

  15. Try Bob’s Red Mill Masa Harina Golden Corn Flour. Made specifically for tortillas. The claims are Non-GMO and the corn organic but can’t be labeled because of process with lime. Be sure to call the company for clarification. I use it to make veggie patties with quinoa and use as bread substitute. It’s a little more moist than corn meal so take that into consideration when baking. You can even buy it through Amazon.

  16. rob says:

    With 90% of corn sold in the US being genetically modified, how would we know if our purchased corn tortillas are GMO free?

  17. Joanne says:

    I love corn tortillas! Having spent time in Mexico and Central America, they have become a regular part of my diet. I agree that they can do almost anything bread can do – only better! I purchase my tortillas at the local coop because it is SO important to buy organic and avoid GMO corn (which is pretty much all corn not grown organically). Support your local coops or make your own with a tortilla press using organic masa.

  18. Donna says:

    I like the information shared here. but what about GMO corn. is there any products like this made without gmo corn?
    I am seeing that about 80% of our corn is from GMO.
    Thank you,
    Donna

  19. Yvonne t says:

    Corn is NOT a gluten free food…..beaides being gmo the gluten content of corn is almost as high as wheat!!! Seee http://www.glutenfreesociety.org dr peter osborne has many medical studies showing ALL grains hv gluten including corn and rice

  20. Sue says:

    In 50 countries there are restrictions and bans on GMO’s. these include many European and Asian countries.
    In the American continent these include Brazil and Mexico, while United States and Canada do not require labeling of GMO’s. So, If you buy tortilla flour from Mexico ( I don’t think Brazil sells it), you should be o.k. regarding GMO’s.
    I buy Maseca brand (tortilla flour) from Mexican stores. It is very finely milled and is the closest I found to traditional made tortillas. I’ve also used organic, sprouted organic corn flour and Red mill Golden Corn Flour “Masa Harina” , but the flavor and texture does not match the Maseca. It is a shame that living in a Fist Wold country, we have to buy food items from 3rd world countries because they are have stricter rules regarding GMO’s than we do.

  21. Zyxomma says:

    I have certified organic, non-GMO, sprouted corn tortillas in my freezer. If I’m not mistaken, they’re Food for Life brand. They’re terrific. I am concerned about GMO corn, so I won’t buy packaged tortillas, even though they’re delicious. Bt use should be the preserve of organic farmers, not grown into the corn, IMO. Health and peace.

  22. Mike says:

    From the documentories I have seen and the information I have read, it cannot be certain that organic corn is not contaminated with GMO due to cross pollination. Most experts in this field will laugh when you talk about corn or soy being organic anymore. One of the dangers is the pesticide is actually engineered into the DNA of the corn. In one documentory I saw it showed how even the heirloom corn in Mexico was becoming contaminated. (Very Sad) Jeffery Smith form the institute of responsible technology and Mercola .com are good resources for more information on this.

  23. Chris says:

    According to this doctor, all grains have some gluten, and if I remember correctly, corn is fairly high. If you’re gluten intolerant, I’d stay away from corn.

    http://www.glutenfreesociety.org/gluten-free-food-sources/?inf_contact_key=819ff07ebaaa11b3eb456f5eaca84ffb2405fcc948cfd8677c6c780ac27618

  24. Sue says:

    Correction—I checked the label from a bag of Maseca I bought over the weekend and it is now being processed in Irving, Texas. I will start searching for a new brand.

  25. Quinny says:

    Aside from the issue of GMO, I am wondering if “lime” is safe to consume in large quantity?

  26. Alan says:

    Dear Frederic,
    Sorry to inform you but i feel that as a Coeliac disease sufferer, i must inform you that most Coeliacs cannot digest corn it irritates the gut for some ungodly reason, and the pain is unbearable i mean really painful, even with the caloric high protein high calcium and other quotations, and by the way you do know what high calcium levels do for yuo don’t you constipation and rock solid bowel movements, so i steer clear of corn tortilla’s or anything else unless someone can prove to me that they don’t harm you. And i know that we need these vitamins and minerals but as a caution be careful what you eat or it may cause problems you don’t want.

  27. We have found organic, gluten-free corn tortillas at our local natural food market, Puget Consumers Coop. They come in two sizes, small and medium. They are so good. Depending on how long you warm them, they are either soft or hard like chips. The brand is Mi Rancho. Yum. Thanks for this article. We may consider making our own also with these tips. Thanks.

  28. michael says:

    To all of You out there still not quite sure about GMO’s, I recommend watching ‘Seeds of Death’ on topdocumentaryfilms.com website. It clarifies a lot of questions you may have and after watching ot you’ll definitely not put any GMO’s in your body ever again (unless you don’t care about your health at all)

  29. Gary Collier says:

    I remember a passage from John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” in which the protagonist, walking through a barrio outside Monterey to visit one of his Mexican friends, noted how healthy and well-fed all the little kids looked. He thought to himself, “Must be all those tortillas and beans.”

    Later, in chiropractic school, I learned that the best food combination for getting a perfect protein in the diet is, you guessed it, corn with beans.

    Your comments on the SOURCE of the corn is critical. Yellow corn has to be avoided because most of it is GM corn. All other corn — white, black, red, pink, blue, purple — are all safe because they haven’t started genetically modifying those types of corn (yet).

    Good article!!!

  30. A great article about corn. The GMO thing is really the least of my concerns. My main concern that was not addressed here and I feel the most critical for those with gluten sensitivity or Celiac is the danger of cross-reactivity from gluten.
    For someone to switch over to eating corn all the time instead of wheat, the danger of cross-reactivity skyrockets. You see, corn has a similar protein structure as gluten. The body sees this and thinks that because it launched an attack of inflammation on the gliadin protein structure, and the corn is so similar, the body will eventually begin a cascade of inflammation every time it sees the same or similar molecular structure. The cross-reactivity can lead to sensitivities towards, millet, buckwheat, chocolate, and a host of many others.
    Just because a food is gluten-free does not mean it is safe for us. Especially in high quantities. If you want to truly heal your body from the damages of gluten, you want to stay off grains completely and work with someone who can help heal your gut. Use corn sparingly for now.

  31. Kendra says:

    You stated “Traditional corn tortillas are usually white, and don’t contain any added fat or salt. They are not made with the vegetable “corn” but rather white maize. This type of corn is richer in protein and much more nutritious.”
    Are you saying that ‘Maize’ is a different type of corn? Sounds like it. Maybe the way corn used to be, before it was modified (in the USA) to contain mostly all starch in the kernel?
    If so, it would make sense that the Maize contains so many more nutrients and protein, and the genetics are ancient.
    Can you comment?
    Thanks, Fred

  32. Hello says:

    Alton Brown once did a whole “Good Eats” show on making corn tortillas. His looked more rustic though since he didn’t buy or make flour but put the maize he soaked in calcium hydroxide in a food processor. He did use a tortilla press though. I haven’t tried making tortillas yet but after I saw that episode I remember wanting to.

  33. RichG says:

    So since 95% of corn in the U.S. is GMO do we just assume that corn tortillas are GMO, and should that not be a concern?

  34. Cynthia says:

    Just fyi, recent evidence indicates corn can cause gluten reactions. After being GF for 10 years with a lot of improvement, my doctor told me to take out corn following the recent study confirming cross reactivity and finally all of the symptoms went away. Most recent study explained here: http://celiacdisease.about.com/b/2013/04/16/study-finds-some-evidence-for-corn-cross-reactivity-in-celiac-disease.htm

  35. Lynn K. says:

    How nice to see your article on good, traditional corn used in tortillas! I am a huge fan of Mexican cooking and find making tortillas a fun way to add true Mexican flavor to a meal. I am curious about the corn sold as MASA..it is already treated with lime, as mentioned, and is very finely ground. It has good flavor and is easy to work into dough for hand made tortillas, but is it non_GMO corn? The only brand that I have found in my area is Manseca. Since I am bothered by wheat, I welcome other ways to add healthy grains to my diet…so if this is made of real, traditional varieties of corn, I think I would make them more often. Thanks for any info!

  36. karen potts says:

    We are so lucky here in S. Oregon where a small farm grows and grinds their GMO free corn. If you are interested in reading more about GMOs and their destructive qualities please go to GMO free Jackson county. There is a wealth of info there! There will even be some actions you might want to take to at least have GMO’s labeled so we can AVOID them!!! If we are talking about health the GMO issue needs to be addressed big time. GMO’s have been proven to compromise the digestive system, and that is where health begins!! Go for the colorful corn when in doubt!

  37. Wendy says:

    I was born in El Salvador and therefore have grown up eating corn tortillas. It’s one of our staple diet foods alongside kidney beans (frijoles), and other yummy stuff! I completely agree with your article and am always feeding my friends & family tortillas! As we now live in Australia we incorporate tortillas into not only central – American dishes but also enjoy spreading our peanut butter & jam onto our tortillas too. Much like you would on bread. It ends up tasting somewhat like a pancake, and as you mentioned since its taste is not overpowering it really accentuates other ingredients you may add to them. Another added benefit is that eating them on regular basis will not only strengthen your bones (due to calcium content) but give you great skin…. At least that’s what my mum always told me and I believe it to be true!

  38. But are they not still fungal??? All corn is! If so anyone fighting disease would want to stay away from them!

  39. Linda says:

    I too love corn tortillas, but find it difficult to find corn tortillas with organic corn. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are the only two places that I have found them. I haven’t found any Latino stores with organic corn. If anybody has a resource, I’d love it !

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