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Earth Notes: The Southwest’s Nutritional Wonder Tree

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It's tough, spare, and spiny, but the common mesquite tree is a nutritional wonder of the Southwest. 

Ripening in summer, the dangling seedpods of mesquite trees are an important food source for humans and animals. They're rich in sugar and protein, as well as minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc. During the Ice Age, camels and mastodon ate them. Today, deer, foxes, coyotes, and even packrats do.

The seeds and pods were also among the most important of all foods for native peoples, who gathered them at the end of summer. After toasting, the pods and beans were pounded into a powdery flour that could be made into small cakes, or strained for a nutty, sweet drink. Or they could be boiled until soft, then made into dumplings, mush or pudding.

The introduction of white sugar and processed flour caused a steep rise in diabetes among many native populations. But now this traditional food source is receiving new attention as a way to combat diabetes and obesity.

The sugar in mesquite comes in the form of fructose, which the body can process without insulin. As a result, mesquite sweetens without sharply increasing blood sugar. Soluble fibers in the seeds and pods also slow and moderate the body's absorption of nutrients.

Some cookbooks now call for mesquite flour to be added to everything from soups and gravies to puddings and ice cream. It's a new, old idea that is adding a healthy and regional flavor to southwestern diets.

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