Maya Nut: Ancient food for a healthy future

Case Studies
Agriculture, Food Security, Nutrition
Maya Nut Institute, Asociacion de Productoras de Ojoche, Nicaragua, Alimentos Nutri-Naturales, Guatemala, Nuez Maya Honduras, Fundacion Agrolibano, Honduras, AGAPE El Salvador
Latin America & Caribbean
Resource Publication Date:
August, 2013
Content Format:

This is one of 50 Harvesting Nutrition project case studies. Harvesting Nutrition was a contest held in 2012 and 2013 that showcased active projects working to improve the impact of agriculture and/or food security on nutrition outcomes. Co-sponsors were SecureNutrition, Save the Children UK, and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). Learn More.

Project Description: ​

The overarching objective of our program is to motivate conservation and restoration of historic Maya Nut “food forests” throughout its native range. We accomplish this by rescuing lost indigenous knowledge about the Maya Nut for food and income for rural communities. Program outcomes include rainforest conservation and restoration, improved self-esteem and status for women and girls, improved ecosystem services, improved agroecosystem resilience to climate change, improved infant and maternal health and reduced childhood malnutrition.

Maya Nut is a nutritious, delicious, wild harvested rainforest food which was once a staple food for pre-Colombian cultures throughout the neotropics. Today knowledge about Maya Nut as food has dropped to near zero in many areas, as logging, clearing for annual crops and ranching have destroyed 95% of native Maya Nut forests. By teaching rural families about the food, fodder and ecosystem value of Maya Nut, we motivate forest conservation and restoration. At the same time, families begin to produce Maya Nut for food and sale. Maya Nut is very high in micronutrients and is a potent pre-biotic, helping the human digestive tract to function better and better absorb nutrients. Maya Nut produces marked improvements in health and immune function of people, particularly children, in nutritionally deficient regions.

We began rescuing lost traditional knowledge about Maya Nut for food, fodder, ecosystem services and income in 2001 by teaching simple one-day cooking and nutrition workshops for women in rural communities in Guatemala. Since then we have expanded to Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Peru, Colombia and Haiti. We now work with more than 100 partner organizations, universities, government ministries and local community groups to replicate workshops in more communities.  In 2009 we started to serve Maya Nut school lunches in 30 schools in Guatemala and since then have expanded to more than 100 schools (sporadically) in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico. We started our Ecological Ranching Program in Guatemala in 2010 with the Ministry of Agriculture and since then have expanded to Haiti and Mexico and have taught training courses for rural and indigenous men in El Salvador and Honduras as well. All of these programs are ongoing and expanding.

Impact of project:

​This project impacts our target population by providing skills and information they can use to obtain a free, healthy, innocuous, super-nutritious food from nearby forests or forest patches. Of the 18,000 (approx) women we have trained, 5% are using their new skills and knowledge to produce Maya Nut for sale, to improve their family income. Maya Nut production has increased family incomes from 12-29% in producer communities.

We have attempted to measure impact of Maya Nut consumption on children’s nutritional status but to date, this has proven too complicated for us to successfully measure. Testimonies from pregnant and lactating women and recent mothers indicate that Maya Nut consumption improves the health, birthweight, immune response and milk production for women and newborns. This is supported by the fact that in San Pedro del Norte, Nicaragua, the local health clinic now prescribes Maya Nut powder (1lb per week) to pregnant and lactating women to ensure healthy babies.

In Guatemala the visible health impacts on children participating in the Maya Nut school lunch program convinced the Ministry of Education to pass a law that Maya Nut lunches be served at least twice per week in the most vulnerable rural schools. Though this law is very rarely enforced, it speaks to the impact of Maya Nut on child health and nutritional status.  Testimonies from parents of children receiving Maya Nut school lunches indicate that Maya Nut has a very positive impact on children’s immune systems, ability to gain weight and performance in school.

Why this project is a Good Practice example: ​

This project is a good and scalable example of maximizing the nutrition impact of agriculture and food security interventions because Maya Nut is a drought-resistant and climate change resistant perennial tree with no reported pests or diseases. These qualities ensure that Maya Nut food forests will provide a consistent and abundant source of nutritious, delicious food despite climate change in the Neotropics. Additionally, Maya Nut food forests require zero inputs and have a much lower cost-benefit ratio than annual crops and even most tree crops. Because Maya Nut seeds contain no fat, they never go rancid. Because they are so high in calcium, once dried, they are extremely hard and unappealing to pests, weevils, and rodents.  These qualities permit dried Maya Nut to be stored for up to 5 years with no negative effect on its nutrition or flavor.

Impact Evaluation:

Impact evaluation in progress

Lessons Learned: ​

Main lessons learned from our intervention have related to the socioeconomic and ecological implications of rainforest destruction versus conservation. Rural people tend to value income much more than health and nutrition. Coming to terms with this reality has permitted us to adapt our intervention to ensure that monetary income is one of the primary intervention outcomes for rural families. This keeps them actively participating. As part of our Maya Nut certification program, we have managed to circumvent the issue by requiring that 10% of all Maya Nut sold by the producers gets returned to the community in the form of Maya Nut school lunches. This was an important lesson to learn, we had to learn it before we could resolve it. We also learned that reforestation is an extremely difficult outcome to achieve in the poorest rural communities due to lack of land tenure. To  deal with this, we have worked with national and community government to prioritize Maya Nut reforestation on public and communal lands. This ensures public access to Maya Nut trees in the future.


Funders: Maya Nut Institute, Shapiro Family Foundation, Maya Nut Certified, SG Foundation, All People Be Happy Foundation

Primary Contact: Erika Vohman, Coordinator

Country: Haiti, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Peru, Colombia

Project Dates: 2001 to Present

Interventions: Incorporate explicit nutrition objectives and indicators, Assess the context at the local level, Target the vulnerable and improve equity, Maintain or improve the natural resource base, Empower women, Facilitate production diversification, Expand markets and market access for vulnerable groups, Incorporate nutrition promotion and education,

Target Population: Women farmers, Rural farmers,

Project Stage: Ongoing activities

Geographic Coverage: Village/Municipality