Tips to Live By

Making the Traditional Tamale Healthier

Dec. 3, 2019 - Erik Noriega

For many households of Mexican descent in the U.S., the weeks following Thanksgiving aren’t only about wrapping gifts. They're also about wrapping tamales. These savory treats — traditionally prepared with generous amounts of lard and lots of salt — don’t have to be unhealthy.

For those unfamiliar with the delicacy, a tamale is made with seasoned, cooked pork surrounded by cornmeal, or masa, encased in a corn husk (or banana leaf). It is then steamed. Tamale recipes can vary greatly, with the only mainstays being the masa shell and the husk. Unfortunately for those who enjoy tamales, they are often not very healthy.

“My grandmother would use an entire carton of lard when preparing the masa. The amount of salt is also extensive, as salt is often added to the meat as well as to the masa,” says Jennifer Pascoe, a registered nurse at Houston Methodist who educates patients on how to eat healthier and maintain special diets. “Salt should be limited in all diets, especially those with diabetes, hypertension, and congestive heart failure. The recommendation is to not exceed 2 g per day.”

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), heart disease is the leading cause of death for Americans. Latino populations face even higher risks of heart disease as a result of their predisposition for obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Tips for making healthier tamales

There are many substitutions that can be made to make the traditional tamale healthier, according to Pascoe. In addition, you can try a healthier tamale recipe.

“For starters you can buy a leaner cut of pork, or at the very least trim the fat off the meat before cooking. Then make sure you drain the fat off the meat before preparing the mixture,” Pascoe says.

Here are three more tips for healthier tamales:

  1. Replace the pork with a healthier alternative such as ground or shredded white chicken or turkey meat, beans or vegetables. Popular vegetarian tamale recipes call for cooked vegetables such as serrano peppers or spinach, black or pinto beans, and low-fat cheeses.

  2. Replace lard or vegetable shortening with vegetable oil.

  3. Replace the pork drippings some people use to flavor the masa with chili powder, since it’s the chili powder that gives the pork drippings some of its flavor.

Pascoe says the biggest challenge to removing the lard or vegetable shortening in the mixture will be spreading the masa on the corn leafs, which will take more time and patience but will be worth the fat and calories saved.

“If you know you have high blood pressure or diabetes, you probably shouldn’t eat traditional tamales,” Pascoe says. “Instead, I would recommend preparing a dozen or so healthy tamales, which use all of our healthy substitutions.”

And everyone should limit the amount of tamales they eat regardless of how they’re prepared.


Healthier Chicken Tamale Recipe



  • 2.5 pounds chicken breasts
  • 3.5 cups water (or enough to cover chicken in pot)
  • 1 teaspoon canola oil
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 medium bell pepper
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 1 tomato
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • 2 teaspoons dried chili peppers, crushed
  • 1 teaspoon low-sodium salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 cup tomato paste



  • 4 cups masa corn flour
  • 4 teaspoons canola oil
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon low-sodium salt
  • 2 cups chicken broth (reserved from cooking the chicken)
  • 18 to 20 dried corn husks



  1. Place the chicken breasts in a pot and add enough water to cover them. Bring pot to a low boil. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes, until the meat is cooked.

  2. Remove chicken from the broth (set broth aside) and let it cool. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, shred it and chop. You may add a little broth to keep it moist.

  3. Heat the canola oil in a large skillet and sauté the onion, garlic and peppers until tender. Add the tomato, chili peppers, pepper, cumin and low-sodium salt. Add tomato paste and 1/2 cup of the chicken broth and simmer for about 15 minutes. Stir the mixture as needed.

  4. Puree the sauce in a food processor or blender and return it to the pan. Add the shredded chicken, stir and let the mixture simmer for 10 to 15 minutes on low heat. Allow to cool.

  5. Soak the corn husks in a large bowl of hot water for about 20 minutes. Make sure they are pliable.

  6. Prepare the masa mixture by combining all ingredients and mixing until the mixture clumps together. Add broth as necessary to make the masa pliable. Turn on to a lightly floured surface and knead lightly for a minute. Divide the masa mixture into 16 equal balls.

  7. Drain and rinse the corn husks. Pat dry and keep covered with a warm damp towel. Tear two or three corn husks into 1/4-inch strips to use for ties. You will need 16 corn husks for the tamales.

  8. Flatten the corn husk on a flat surface. With a spoon or spatula spread one ball of dough over the husk leaving about a 1-inch margin on all sides. You may add a few tablespoons of warm chicken broth to the masa to make it more pliable and easier to spread. Add about 2 or 3 tablespoons of filling to the center. Roll up lengthwise into a cylinder and wrap with the corn husk. Secure the ends by tying with a strip of husk. Repeat with remaining dough, filling the remaining husks. You may freeze the tamales to cook at a later date or steam cook immediately.

  9. Place the tamales in a steamer basket and set over one inch of boiling water. Cover tightly and reduce heat. Steam the tamales between 30 to 45 minutes until cooked. Check frequently and replenish water as needed. Frozen tamales should be thawed for at least one hour and will require a longer cook time.
Categories: Tips to Live By
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