Tamales are a traditional dish of pre-Columbian, Indigenous origin consumed in most Latin American countries, from Mexico to Brazil, including in the Caribbean.
They’re an important cultural food. As a Costa Rican, I could not imagine going through the Christmas season without at least one tamaleada, a tradition in which families and friends gather together to enjoy our long-awaited tamales.
Given how many people in so many different countries eat tamales, the recipe has countless variations, including sweet and savory options.
However, they’re all made with corn dough, also called masa, and wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf.
This article reviews tamales, their nutrients, and ways to make them healthier.
Tamales are a dish made out of corn dough — although some variations may use rice dough — stuffed with a combination of meats, vegetables, fruits, cheese, and herbs, depending on each country’s tradition.
They are then wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf and steamed instead of fried.
For the most part, they’re a special-occasion food in Latin American countries, traditionally reserved for Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, but people also consume them year-round.
They originated in ancient Indigenous cultures in which corn had sacred meaning.
The ingredients, preparation, wrapper, fillings, and size of tamales vary depending on the country and region in which they are made.
However, their basic ingredients typically include:
- corn or sweet corn dough, depending on whether you’re preparing a sweet or savory tamale
- savory fillings like beef, chicken, or pork
- sweet fillings like fresh or dried fruit
Some recipes call for seasoning the dough with chili or achiote for color, while others add sauces or toppings such as chili and tomato sauce, cheese, and sour cream, to name a few.
Other fillings may include vegetables, herbs, rice, and legumes — or there may be no filling at all.
Tamales are typically made by stuffing corn dough with some meat. Variations may include other fillings, such as vegetables or herbs, or no filling at all. Sweet varieties are also common, often including fresh or dried fruit.
As you can imagine, the nutritional properties of tamales vary depending on the recipe.
Below is a comparison of two medium (128-gram) tamales, with and without meat filling (
Meatless tamales are a rich source of carbs and fat. In contrast, meat-filled tamales make a complete meal by providing protein as well.
While the fat content of a meat-filled tamale may vary depending on the meat used, both tamales’ fat content mainly comes from the lard added to the dough — a significant source of saturated fat and cholesterol (3).
Also, keep in mind that adding sour cream, cheese, and other traditional sauces and toppings may increase your tamales’ fat and calorie counts.
Tamales are a rich source of carbs and fats, primarily saturated fat. Adding toppings and sauces may increase your tamales’ fat and calorie counts. Meat-filled tamales make a complete meal by providing protein too.
Tamales provide certain nutritional and cultural benefits.
To improve handling and nutritional value, corn is subjected to a treatment called nixtamalization, which enhances corn flour’s flexibility, firmness, color, and shelf life (
During nixtamalization, the corn is cooked in a calcium hydroxide solution and then soaked, washed, and ground to obtain the flour used to make dough, tortillas, and other products (
One of the most significant effects of this treatment is that the corn’s starch changes in structure, becoming resistant starch (
The production of resistant starch in the nixtamalization process occurs during the cooking and soaking steps. Research suggests the resistant starch content of tamales may increase to 1.6–3.7 times that of raw corn (
Resistant starch acts as a type of fiber because your body cannot digest it. In fact, because your gut’s friendly bacteria can ferment it, it is considered a prebiotic (
Some of the most studied benefits of resistant starch are its ability to help regulate blood sugar and cholesterol levels, improve gut health, and even aid weight loss (
However, studies suggest that the resistant starch content in traditional nixtamalized corn flour is higher than that of commercial nixtamalized corn flour.
This is thought to be due to the differences in the processing methods, such as the hydrocolloids and gums used as gelling agents in commercial nixtamalized flours (
While these gelling agents promote flexibility and strength of corn products and reduce stickiness during processing and packaging, they slow the process that increases the resistant starch content (
Therefore, eating tamales made with traditional nixtamalization processes may help you reap the health benefits of resistant starch (
An important cultural food
Food expresses people’s culture, identity, values, and lifestyle (
Like many other traditional foods do for different cultures, tamales occupy an important place in Latino homes during family gatherings in times of celebration.
Thus, tamales are more than just a dish. They highlight the importance of cultural food practices as an integral part of identity preservation and continuity of Latino communities, especially among migrant populations (
Tamales are a source of resistant starch, which helps regulate blood sugar and cholesterol levels, improve gut health, and promote weight loss. They are also an important cultural food that helps preserve the identity of Latino communities.
The type of fat people typically use in tamales is the main downside of this food.
Because lard is often used to prepare the dough, tamales can be a source of saturated fat and cholesterol.
Although current research on the effects of dietary cholesterol on heart disease is mixed, most studies associate high cholesterol intake with increased levels of total and LDL (bad) cholesterol (
The high saturated fat content of some cholesterol-containing foods may also be a risk factor for heart disease (
While cholesterol is essential for cell membrane structure and hormone production, high intakes of saturated fatty acids may increase the risk of atherosclerosis, which is a risk factor for stroke and heart attacks (
Atherosclerosis happens when plaque builds up in your arteries.
Studies suggest that reducing saturated fat intake by replacing it with polyunsaturated vegetable oil may reduce the risk of heart disease by 30% (
Thus, next time you prepare your own tamales, consider swapping the lard for vegetable oil.
When prepared with lard, tamales can be a significant source of cholesterol and saturated fat, which may increase your risk of heart disease.
As mentioned above, because every country has its own version of tamales — and some countries have more than one — there is no right way to prepare them.
However, the variations focus mostly on the fillings. Almost all versions involve preparing the dough in the same way.
Simple tamale dough
Here’s a simple dough recipe that makes about 45 tamales.
- 8 cups (990 grams) corn masa flour or Maseca, plus extra as needed
- 2 tablespoons (30 grams) table salt
- 1/3 cup (70 grams) lard or vegetable oil
- 6 cups (1.4 liters) chicken broth, plus extra as needed
- 2 tablespoons (30 grams) chili sauce for color (optional)
- Add masa flour and salt to a big mixing bowl and combine.
- Warm lard in a medium saucepan. Then add lard, broth, and chili sauce (if using) to the flour mixture.
- Mix with your hands by working the dough through your fingers, as if you’re kneading bread, until it is smooth and sticky but holds its shape when pressed together.
- If the dough feels too dry, add more broth. In contrast, if it feels too wet, add more flour.
- Spread the dough onto a corn husk or banana leaf and stuff with your desired filling.
After this, people typically roll up the tamales, place them in a pot with broth, and steam them.
Vegan and vegetarian modifications
If you’re looking to make vegan- or vegetarian-friendly tamales, simply swap the lard for canola oil and the chicken broth for vegetable broth.
As for the filling, try adding steamed vegetables, shredded jackfruit with salsa, or bean or chickpea stew instead of beef, chicken, or pork.
Good tamales start with a good dough recipe, which you can turn into a vegan- or vegetarian-friendly version with a couple of substitutions. You can also swap animal-based fillings for steamed vegetables, fruits, or legumes.
Small changes to the traditional tamale recipe can lead to significant nutritional improvements.
Try some of these tips to boost the nutritional content of your next tamales:
- Boost fiber content. Aside from the meat, you can add some beans or chickpeas and steamed veggies to the filling to increase the fiber content.
- Use vegetable oil instead. Swap the lard for vegetable oil to reduce the saturated fat content.
- Choose lean meat. Opt for lean meats for the stuffing, or remove the visible fat from your choice of meat before cooking.
- Use low salt broth. Whether you’re using chicken or vegetable broth, opt for a low sodium version.
To make tamales healthier, you can add more fiber to the filling and choose lean meats, low sodium broth, and vegetable oil.
Tamales are a traditional food strongly connected to the culture and identity of Latino communities.
When stuffed with the traditional pork, meat, or chicken filling, they make a complete meal that provides all the macronutrients and even some resistant starch, which is associated with multiple health benefits.
However, they can be a significant source of cholesterol and saturated fat.
Still, by making some small changes, you can improve your tamales’ nutritional value or even turn them into a vegan- or vegetarian-friendly dish.