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Esca Bona supplier hero: Masienda

Masienda revamped the corn tortilla market by offering a clean label, heirloom product that addresses farmer, chef and consumer needs.

Many brands are shifting and responding to consumer demands by updating typical pantry items with traceable, conscientious, better-for-you, more flavorful products that are challenging stale and status quo categories. In this Supply Hero profile, California-based Masienda, led by Jorge Gaviria, challenges the tortilla category. The basis for reinvigorating how tortillas are made includes seizing an opportunity, meeting consumer demands and differentiation, culminating in solving many-a-problem. In short, it’s what makes supply heroes stand out, but it’s relatively logical when a brand pays attention and delivers on what the market is seeking.

Identity preserved corn

Corn (or maize) is one of the most traded agricultural commodities in the world, contributing to the massive ag-industrial complex of monoculture farms growing corn for feed, ethanol and various other derivatives in our food such as high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Corn is the poster child for the over processing in modern food production. And its most valued partner-in-crime is its GMO (genetically modified organism) equivalent, which now constitutes more than 90 percent of U.S. corn plantings, up from 7 percent in 2000, according to USDA. A lot has happened in nearly two decades culminating in the contentious debate over whether GMOs are franken food or feed-the-world technology. However, the resulting takeaway is consumer demand for transparent and traceable products. For Masienda, that means relying on a suite of tools verifying and protecting its line of identity preserved and differentiated corn. A giant step forward to compete with commodity corn—an otherwise opaque supply chain.

Solving problems

Masienda sources corn from the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca, where subsistence farmers grow an heirloom variety stemming from a 7,000-year-old tradition of cultivation. Maize, native to this region, is superior in flavor because of its deep ecological, environmental and cultural contexts of terroir yielding a truly unique and distinctive variety.

Identifying this trove of heirloom corn presented an opportunity to help address some of the biggest food-system related issues. Some farmers grow a surplus of heirloom corn with no buyer, while others participate in a low-value commodities market where corrupt practices deprive them of fair payments. Alternatively, the Masienda team pays a premium to farmers for both unused and—what would otherwise be—unfair corn. Increasing the incomes of poor rural farmers through a fair-trade philosophy, while reducing food waste yields positive social and environmental impacts. And by sourcing heirloom varieties for a three-ingredient tortilla formulation of corn, lime and water, Masienda created a new tortilla experience responding to consumer demand for improved wellness. Consumers not only want simpler foods stripped of unnecessary fillers and preservatives—check!—but healthier, more nutritious, and flavorful products too—check!

Through an ancient technique known as nixtamalization—discovered by the Aztecs and Mayans—the ingredient batch is brought to a boil followed by a 12 to 14-hour soak in the alkaline (lime) water mixture rendering the corn highly nutritious, and then it’s ground into a tortilla-ready dough (masa). Heirloom corn, three ingredients and a time-honored slow processing technique meets the continued consumer demand for products full of flavor and nutrition guiding them on a path towards wellness.

Not all corn is created equal

Masienda takes a stand for corn, and swaps out unsavory standards and practices for new supply partnerships resulting in corn that is fair and nutritious. It is central to Masienda’s business to prove that not all corn is created equal, and it invests time and effort in standing out. Because the only way to succeed in the market is to differentiate against commodity corn. Three stakeholders are essential to Masienda’s ability to stand out as an alternative corn and tortilla company: farmers, chefs and consumers.

Farmers are where integrity and quality begin because they are required to adopt on-site food safety protocols—i.e., testing for aflatoxins and sorting out affected corn—and specific packaging processes to ensure no shipping related fumigants contaminate supply. This type of farmer responsibility and engagement is often absent in the commodity corn trade. But Masienda’s careful attention to detail for food safety, quality and identity-preserved processes yields opportunities for farmer control in the transactional sale of corn—resulting in higher premiums. When more effort is required to yield a safe and differentiated alternative to commodity corn, the more engagement required from the farmer, and ultimately, greater agency and ownership in delivering a superior product.

Chefs have played an important role in socializing and bringing awareness of Masienda’s corn and tortillas to the market. Chefs are Masienda’s early adopters and first to respond to a new product that can enhance flavor across their menus. Offering better flavor is a must, but ingredients rich in history and culture are helping to define chefs and restaurants across the country. Chefs have served as creative partners that bring additional value to an ingredient that the market has shunned or overlooked.

Consumers are awakening to the pervasive issues in our food system, particularly diet-related health issues. In fact, corn is a demonized commodity to the conscious consumer, and sits at the opposite end of health and wellness. But Masienda has learned how to respond to this consumer awaking for healthier products and by putting in the hard work, and repairing its qualities as Masienda is doing, corn done right can be a superfood. 

Amanda Hartt has been working in the natural products industry for almost six years since completing a Master’s degree in food policy, nutrition and sustainability, which pivoted her career and skill sets to researching and analyzing the shifting policies and business practices dictating the structure of food systems. As a professional researcher with prior work experiences in community development, namely as a Peace Corps Volunteer, Amanda advocates for and supports brands affecting positive change through their supply chains that help disenfranchised producers solve persistent health, environmental and social issues. Amanda currently works as a market research manager for the NEXT Data and Insights team within the New Hope Network in Boulder, Colorado.

Editor’s Note: The Esca Bona Supplier Heroes is a reoccurring feature of suppliers that fuel innovation in the good food supply chain. These features explore the brand story, innovation, supply chain investment, research and partnerships that these companies undertake to improve the food system and consumer health. We select suppliers based on their commitment to the good food movement, their story, their sustainability initiatives, their focus on safe and efficacious ingredients, and their partnerships with their finished product customers.

Esca Bona is an event and brand spearheaded by New Hope Network that champions the good food movement by helping finished product brands improve their supply chain, support the people who create food, and best harness technology and innovation.

If you know of—or are—a supplier with a story to tell, email Sandy Almendarez, editor in chief, Natural Products INSIDER at sandy.almendarez@informa.com.

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