Since thousands of years ago, Zea mays L. has been a staple food for humans in Central and South America and an important fodder plant for animals. Zea mays L. is a highly important crop native to America, where it was one of the most important foods of the ancient American inhabitants several centuries before the Europeans arrived to the New World. In the Tehuacán Valley, in Southern Mexico, Zea mays L. was cultivated since approximately 4 600 years, according to concluding evidences supplied by archaeological and paleobotanical findings.
This plant species was introduced in Europe from America, when Spanish conquerors carried it to their country. Zea mays L. ‘Kculli’ was first cultivated in Asturias, in 1604, where it was introduced by the governor of Florida, then a Spanish territory. During the 18th century, this crop gradually extended from Spain to the rest of Europe.
Nowadays, corn, maize or Zea mays L. is a grass extensively cultivated as human and animal food, and as fodder for cattle. The common name by which Zea mays L. is known in almost all Latin America, maíz, originated in the Western Indies, since Western Indies were the first American lands the Spanish conquerors trod upon; this term was rapidly incorporated to the Spanish language.
In Mexico, the Nahuas used the word centli for the ear and tlaolli for the kernel. In Peru, the Quechuas used the word curunta (adopted in today Peruvian Spanish as coronta) for the ear without grains, the word sara for ripe corn, the word ccamcha (adopted in today Peruvian Spanish as cancha) for toasted corn and the word chojllo (adopted in today Peruvian Spanish as choclo) for unripe sweet corn. In the Western Indies, as it has been already said, natives termed it mays.
The scientific name for corn is Zea mays L. Zea comes from the Greek "dzea", a variety of wheat, and mays as we have already said, is the Caribbean name for it.
Corn had many ritual and magic uses, notably on the American continent. Mayas and Aztecs thus believed that Man had been shaped with corn flour. East and North of the continent, the mother of corn was venerated for a long time, as a symbol for fullness and fertility. Many Inca tombs or burial places in Peru contain ears or grains of corn and Mexicans used to venerate a goddess whose name was deriving from the name of the plant. All sorts of rituals use corn: a sheaf of corn above a mirror brings good fortune to a family; a necklace of dried grains preserves from nosebleeds; it is recommended to burn corn ears on the bedroom threshold in case of painful delivery and an ear in the cradle will protect a baby. More generally, corn symbolizes protection, luck, property and wealth. An Iroquoian prayer: "we give thanks to corn and its sisters, beans and gourds, to give us life".
Corn is today the third most cultivated cereal in the world by crop volume (between 500 and 600 million ton per annum) after wheat and rice. Some forms or varieties are cultivated due to their flour. In the meal corn, soft and loose starch predominates, so that its milling is easier. Corn is profusely cultivated in the South American Andes, on the territories occupied by the ancient Inca Empire.
The most cultivated forms or varieties for direct human use as food are those of sweet corn. In these varieties, the sugar produced by the plant do not transforms into starch when the grain gets ripeness; for this reason this variety’s kernels have a sweet tasting. Sweet corn kernels also present a characteristic corrugation.
There exist several kinds of corn in the world, and they have various colors such as white, yellow, red, purple, brown, green, and blue. Purple corn is one of the many forms, lines, cultivars or varieties of Zea mays L. This cultivar is native to Peru and is grown in Andean low valleys. There, this form or variety is called maíz morado (Castilian/Spanish) or kculli (Quechuan) and is being utilized as a food material for millennia. Purple corn is mostly cultivated in the coast, although it can be cultivated up to 3 300 m asl.
Present in beans, fruits, vegetables and red wines, considerable amounts of anthocyanins are ingested as constituents of the human diet (180 mg to 215 mg daily). Zea mays L. also contains anthocyanins.
There are different variations within purple corn, and all of them originated from an ancestral line called Kculli, still cultivated in Peru. The Kculli line is very old, and ancient objects in the shape of these particular ears of corn have been found in archeological sites at least 2 500 years old in places in the central Peruvian coast, as well as among the ceramics of the Mochica culture. This corn variety has long been used by the people of the Peruvian Andes to color foods and beverages, something that the industrialized world is just exploiting.
Modern Peruvians, as ancient Peruvians did, also make a drink from the whole corn and cob which they call chicha morada. With this drink they also like to prepare a very popular dessert called mazamorra morada. In some Amerindian regions of Peru, Amerindians are accustomed to eat a very similar dessert prepared with the whole kernel; this dessert is called api.
According to the Cancer Research Association of Japan, charred parts of roasted meat and fish contain natural carcinogenic substances responsible for the development of colon cancer in humans. For this reason, cancer to the large intestine has increased in Japan and other developed countries.
Recently, the purple matter obtained from Zea mays L. ‘Kculli’ has been reported to decrease the carcinogenesis in rat colon. Purple corn is also said to have higher antioxidant capacity and antiradical kinetics than blueberries and higher or similar anthocyanin and phenol contents.
In this way, anthocyanins have been noted not only as a food colorant but also as a health food material. Hence, today, whole food powder or atomized extract powder are available in the market. Due to its polyphenolic compounds, Zea mays L. ‘Kculli’ can be classified as a functional food.