Masienda wants to elevate tortillas by importing nonGMO, biodiverse corn

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: E. Crawford
Source: E. Crawford

Related tags Maize

New York-based startup Masienda wants to elevate the $6.8 billion corn tortilla market in the US by importing biodiverse, heirloom corn from Mexico to create a better tasting, nonGMO alternative to the options currently available in the staple category. 

The US currently produces 5 billion pounds of yellow dent, commodity corn a year – 93% of which is genetically modified, and most of which is not consumed by humans, said Jorge Gaviria, founder and CEO of Masienda.

“A staggering 98.5% of this corn goes to products that have nothing to do with human food, such as animal feed and creating shoe polish,”​ but 1.5% is used to produce cereal, snacks and importantly, tortillas and masa, which are staple foods in many Latino homes in the US, Gaviria said.

“So, suffice it to say, corn production in the US for human food is an afterthought, and it is our concern that it’s a $6.8 billion afterthought, which is the size of the American corn tortilla market today,”​ he said.

He explained that using commodity yellow dent corn to make such pivotal products as tortillas is problematic because it ignores the evolving preference of 75% of Americans who are concerned about and avoiding GMO products.

While the safety of genetic engineered food is hotly debated, Gaviria said it is difficult to ignore the potential risks of Round-Up residue on commodity crops, such as corn and soy, which FDA recently announced it would start regulating more strictly.

Masienda wants to address these problems by importing nonGMO, identity preserved corn directly from Mexico to make better tasting tortillas, masa and other products that will meet consumer demand for nonGMO products.

“Our mission is to pursue exceptional flavor while supporting small farmers in Mexico … and biodiversity and sustainability,”​ Gaviria said.

Plenty of supply to meet demand

He explained Mexico has the highest concentration of biodiverse corn that is produced for human consumption in the world, and because GMO corn is not allowed to be grown in Mexico, there is necessary and sufficient insulation to guarantee identity preserved products.

In addition, he said, there are 3 million smallholder farmers growing heirloom corn in Mexico, many of which are not even producing their full potential because there is not sufficient demand to absorb a surplus currently.

This means that there is sufficient scalability potential for imported heirloom corn to support a revolution in how tortillas, masa and other corn-based foods, like chips, cereal and snacks, are made in the US, he explained.

Masienda is tapping into this potential by working closely with high-end chefs to create better tasting dishes. As more consumers taste the difference at these restaurants, they will start demanding higher quality corn products at the retail level, Gaviria told potential investors at Rabobank North America Wholesale’s FoodBytes!​ pitch-slam in Brooklyn, NY, March 3. 

Exponential growth on the horizon

He noted the demand for his corn already is growing exponentially. In the company’s first year in 2014, it imported 80,000 pounds of heirloom corn. This is projected to climb to 800,000 this year – a 10 fold increase.

The company plans to take advantage of this momentum in 2016 by launching several CPGs made with its imported heirloom corn. These will include an elevated corn tortilla.

The company also is helping co-brand snacks from well-established brands, such as Fronterra tortilla chips, by providing nonGMO heirloom corn for the bases ingredient.

Looking forward, Gaviria said he is confident the tortilla market – and demand for his high-quality, biodiverse corn – will grow in the US as the Latino population continues to expand and bring with them their flavors.

“This is a huge opportunity,”​ and Masienda intends to seize it by finding the best corn for human food possible and making it readily available, he said. 

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