Indigenous Crop: Mesquite—Ancient Flour of the Future

Native-Americans were very familiar with mesquite and the flour that it can yield, but it is only recently being rediscovered for its tasty flour and nutritional benefits. (Jo-Back Home Now..Went To Santa Fe Yesterday)

Grill masters in the United States know mesquite for its smoky flavor and aroma, but this shrub is more than just a fuel for fire. Mesquite is the common North American name for woody plants of the genus prosopis, which has about 45 species growing in semi-arid climates such as parts of North America, Argentina, India, and South Africa. It is a fast growing, hardy, and xerophytic (drought tolerant) shrub, which means it grows well in climates lacking consistent rainfall. Mesquite is leguminous, or nitrogen-fixing, which means it enriches the fertility of soils.

The bean pods of many mesquite varieties have a sweet “distinctive cinnamon-mocha-coconut aroma and flavor” when dried and ground into flour. Mesquite bean pods were an integral wild plant staple of traditional native diets in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico for centuries. Native-Americans identified ways of grinding the bean pods into flour using mortar and pestle-like tools made out of stone. The edible portion of the bean pod is the pulp between the hard seed and pod shell. The actual seed is also edible and rich in protein, but harder to harvest. 

There are written accounts from early Spanish explorers seeing cakes made of mesquite and corn during their explorations of North America. However, with the advent of modern processed foods in the mid-20th century, mesquite was no longer a staple ingredient in Native-American and Mexican diets. In the southwestern United States, mesquite is now considered a weed by many ranchers because it competes with rangeland grasses for water. Nevertheless, mesquite flour is currently making a comeback in the United States, where it is used in breads, pancakes, muffins, cakes, and cookies for not only its taste but the fact that it is gluten-free.
Mesquite flour has been shown to balance and control blood sugar, which is key to preventing and managing diabetes. According to an article in the Journal of Arid Environments, it is high in dietary fiber and protein (including the amino acid lysine). It also contains high amounts of the minerals calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, sulfur, manganese, and zinc.
Woodworking, constructing shelters, basket making (using the root fibers), and charcoal making are a few examples of other traditional uses for mesquite. The branches contain a resin that was used by Native-Americans in first aid as a paste for stings, scrapes, cuts, and insect bites. The resin has also been used to make a tea to cure sore throats.

Mesquite has been selectively bred for plants with sweeter, edible pods, as opposed to more bitter pods. The crop has the potential to spur small business development, especially for exporting the flour to developed countries where the gluten-free diet is becoming more prevalent. According to research scientist Peter Felker of Texas A&M University-Kingsville, mesquite could be a useful crop for improving food security and sustainable development throughout the world.


Mesquite Meringue Cookies (Gluten-free)


3 egg whites
1 cup of sugar (can be less if a less sweet cookie is preferred)
½ cup of mesquite flour
½ teaspoon of salt
2 teaspoons of lemon juice 


Mix the sugar and mesquite flour together. Without stopping, slowly add the sugar/mesquite flour to the egg whites as they are beaten with an electric mixer. Add the salt and lemon juice while continuing to beat the mixture. Continue beating until a consistency is reached such that when the mixing bowl is inverted the mixture does not fall from the bowl. Immediately after beating, place spoon size drops on a cookie sheet covered with waxed paper (it is preferred that the cookie sheet have holes).  Place in an oven at a very low temperature (about 210° F) for about an hour to an hour and a half. Be careful not to let the cookies brown.

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Indigenous crops have provided communities with nourishment for thousands of years. Traditional and indigenous varieties of vegetables, fruits, legumes, and grains are not only typically highly nutritious, but also provide much-needed diversity in peoples’ diets, particularly in the developing world. Food Tank will regularly feature indigenous crops from around the world, highlighting the important roles they play in providing nutrients, improving food security, raising incomes, and making staple crops taste good.

Brett is a recent graduate from the Heller School at Brandeis University, where he studied Sustainable International Development. His interests include agricultural technologies and management practices that support sustainable livelihood development, food waste reduction strategies, culinary history, and the power of gardens and farms to bring communities together.

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