Accepting yellow maize in Africa

ResearchBlogging.orgThe cuisines of Italy and southern and eastern Africa don’t have much in common. One thing they do share, though, is the concoction of boiled maize meal which we call polenta, Kenyans call ugali and Zimbabweans sadza. I remember my wife’s excitement — she’s from Kenya — as I first explained to her about polenta when we saw it listed in the menu of a Milanese restaurant in Rome many years back now.

That quickly turned to something close to disappointment — if not disgust — when she saw the stuff, in all its golden goodness. She was expecting it to be white. Yellow maize she associated with hard times, she explained. It came into the country as food aid in bad years when she was a girl, to be eaten by poor people.

I guess I thought this was something that was confined to Kenya, but a paper just out in Food Policy tells a very similar — though perhaps more statistically robust — story from Zimbabwe. ((Tawanda Muzhingi, Augustine S. Langyintuo, Lucie C. Malaba and Marianne Banziger. Consumer acceptability of yellow maize products in Zimbabwe. Food Policy. In Press, available online 31 October 2007.)) The authors surveyed people’s attitudes to yelow maize in 360 households in three rural districts and the two main urban centres.

Yellow maize is rich in provitamin A, and could be a good way of combating vitamin A deficiency in vulnerable groups. But because it is mainly available in imported food aid, and also has a tendency to develop a bad taste if not handled properly, people just don’t like eating it — and don’t grow it. The authors suggest that nutritional education aimed at low-income groups might stimulate local production and consumption. But I think the social stigma associated with it will be difficult to dislodge. At least if my wife’s attitude is anything to go by.

Incidentally, when I talked to Jeremy about this post he said that there is a clear geographic divide in the USA between regions which prefer white and yellow maize, but he couldn’t remember the details. And I wasn’t able to find anything online. Maybe someone out there can help.

11 Replies to “Accepting yellow maize in Africa”

  1. I don’t know about the US, but in Guatemala yellow (and black) maize is eaten by indigenous people in the western highlands (who also eat white maize, by the way). In nonindigenous communities it is grown for animal consumption only, often for the market. Massive yellow maize importation (mainly from the US) since the late 1990s has curtailed commercial yellow maize production.

    Perhaps some South-South exchange could help to remove the yellow maize stigma…

    I don’t think anyone would, if blindfolded, taste the difference between different colours of maize. (Did anyone test this at home?) But especially the black maize tortillas look very nice!

  2. I think whatever geographic divide that exists in US corn preference must be historical.

    I’ve lived in the northeast, west and Midwest US, and in all places corn was almost always yellow. Occasionally it was white, especially cornmeal. Sometimes we would get fresh corn ears that had both yellow and white kernels on them. I think some people might be reluctant to buy all white fresh corn, thinking it wasn’t fully mature, so that probably isn’t common anywhere except perhaps a few speciality markets.

    I don’t think anyone ever bought corn according to what color it was, you just took what you got. I don’t think anyone ever had a preference either. Quality was normally a regional thing, with the Midwest having the best.

    This kind of food preference is often regional. Some places like brown eggs and others white. There are also areas that like white cheese or yellow cheese. I can believe a preference existed for corn at some point, but I don’t think anymore.

  3. I grew up in North Carolina, USA and we mostly ate yellow corn, but sometimes we ate white…..I am trying to make a map of maize preference in Latin America. It’s a work in progress. See

    If you know what color people prefer in Latin America (and you read Spanish or Portuguese), please fill out our survey at

    Anybody can fill out the survey. You just need to be able to roughly estimate how much of the maize consumed is white or yellow.

    So far the map is showing some interesting patterns. Rural Mexico is mostly white maize. But if you ever eat tortillas there and you are in cities, they will probably be yellow (imported from USA). Central America and the high Andes from Bolivia northward are also white maize areas, which might make it difficult to address Vitamin A deficiency with yellow maize (in the 2 areas where nutrition problems are greatest). Yellow maize is predominant in the Amazon, including the countries of the western Amazon where white maize may be preferred in the mountain and coast regions. Brazil and the southern cone look to be mostly yellow maize areas.

    I agree with Luigi. I don’t think it will be easy to get people to change their preferences.

  4. I can remember which book I read it in — and if I ever get around to unpacking my books I will find it and copy out the relevant section. It related specifically to cornbread and other products made from cornmeal.


    I think there is more to the question than taste/preference alone (this can change rapidly, as it did in the US).

    Improved varieties of yellow maize are lagging behind yellow varieties in Central America in productivity. Could spending more research money on yellow maize make it more attractive economically? Just a thought.

  6. The Wikipedia article on cornbread says, with reference to the US, that “Northern cooks tend to use yellow corn meal and Southern aficionados generally prefer white.” Glenn, I think you should include the US in your map!

  7. So that’s the way round it goes; could have been reversed.

    And in the book I mentioned, as yet still unpacked, there is talk of yellow being “rich” and white being “pure”. Those are often words associated with “taste” preferences for foods where literal taste is not an issue, for example eggshell colour.

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