Do you love corn? The sweet and crunchy taste of a fresh ear of corn dripping in butter and dappled with real salt is something that few people can resist. Perhaps you have been told that corn is bad for you – it raises your blood sugar or it is all genetically modified and should be avoided like the plague. While some things you hear about corn may be true, there is a lot of misinformation circulating about this ancient food.
Corn (Zea mays), also known as maize, has been an honored and food staple for over 7000 years. The Ancient Mayan, Aztec and Incan people used it for food, shelter, fuel and even decoration. Corn has and continues to play an integral role in Native American cultures and is, of course, a favorite summertime treat that many of us look forward to each year.
Classifying corn correctly
The botanical definition tells us that corn is a fruit along with tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers and squash. However, corn seed is also referred to as a vegetable because it is harvested for eating as well as a grain because it is a dry seed of a species of grass. Some even refer to it as a vegetable grain.
When we unpack corn we see that it is a monocotyledon – containing only one seed leaf like a grass. Other grains such as wheat, oats and barley, are also monocots. Technically, a grain is defined as the harvested dry seeds of fruit or cereal grasses. Since field corn is harvested when the seeds are dry – it is known as a grain.
Because sweet corn is grown with the purpose of being eaten as a tender vegetable and is harvested before maturity, it is often thought of as a vegetable. Vegetables are defined as a plant that is grown for some edible part such as roots, stems, leaves, flowers or seeds/fruit. Although we could say that all cereal grains are vegetables – we separate them from other vegetables because they are dry.
Varieties of corn
The earliest varieties of corn were red, yellow, white and black. Today, we are basically limited to white and yellow. While white corn is super sweet, yellow has more nutrient value in the form of carotenoids.
Nutrient profile and health benefits
Corn is an excellent source of dietary fiber, loaded with vitamins B1, B5, vitamin C, folate, phosphorus and manganese. One ear of corn (½ cup) has about 75 calories and 2 grams of protein.
Recent research has found that yellow corn contains powerful phytonutrients. In fact, although the phytonutrients in corn are bound, not free like in other vegetables, when total antioxidant activity was measured in corn compared to other fruits and vegetables, corn kept pace. Researchers feel that this may explain why cultures that consume a fiber-rich diet containing a great deal of corn, have a low risk of colon cancer.
Lung Health: The carotenoid, beta-cryptoxanthin found in yellow corn may promote lung health. The results of seven studies showed that the more beta-cryptoxanthin in the diet, the less risk of developing lung cancer.
Heart Health: The folate and B vitamins in corn help lower levels of homocysteine, an amino acid in the blood that causes damage to blood vessels. The dietary fiber in corn also helps promote healthy blood cholesterol.
Energy Production: Yellow corn contains two B vitamins, thiamin and pantothenic acid which are essential to energy production. Thiamin helps convert sugar into energy and pantothenic acid is necessary for the metabolism of carbohydrates, protein and lipids. B vitamins help support the body in times of stress.
Other Benefits: Corn contains the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin that are known to lessen the risk of age-related vision loss due to oxidative damage to the retina. The phenolic compound ferulic acid is effective in killing tumors found in liver and breast cancer.
What about the sugar in corn?
A lot of people stay clear from corn because they are afraid that the natural sugars will wreak havoc on their blood sugar. The truth is that an ear of corn has about the same number of calories as an apple and about one-fourth the amount of sugar. If you are on a highly strict, no-sugar diet, corn may not be the ideal choice, however, when consumed in moderation, it can be a valuable source of nutrients and energy.
Not all corn is good corn or beneficial for the body. Here are 2 “types” of corn that you will definitely want to avoid.
Killer GMO corn
A lot of people mix up “sweet corn” with “field corn” – the latter being a very inedible commodity crop used to make livestock feed, ethanol and high-fructose corn syrup. Prior to 2012, consumers did not have to worry about sweet corn being genetically modified, however, Monsanto changed all of that.In the summer of 2012, they introduced huge quantities of GMO sweet corn in the grocery stores and it even appeared on roadside stands.
GMO sweet corn is resistant to herbicides and can produce its own insecticide. This killer corn is now found fresh at your grocery store and farmers markets all over the country – and is also used in frozen and canned corn products. Because manufacturers are not obligated to inform consumers of the genetically modified corn in products, it makes it very hard to choose wisely. The Non-GMO Project Verified sweet corn list is a useful tool to help you make the right choice. If you can’t find any of these verified products the best bet is to eat Certified Organic corn as Certified Organic farmers are not permitted to plant GMO seed.
Killer high fructose corn syrup
High fructose corn syrup was first invented in the 1960′s and began to be heavily produced in the 1970′s, shortly after the USDA ended controls on wheat, soy and corn production. This change in policy encouraged farmers to grow as much of these crops as possible. And to matters worse, the new policy came with hefty subsidies to farmers who would grow these crops.
Since 1995, over $19 billion in subsidies has gone to crops that are used to produce nutritionally void products such corn sweeteners, corn starch and soy oils. In comparison, no subsidies have been paid for fruit or vegetable farmers who are growing healthy and nutritious crops.
Over 40% of the non-calorie sweeteners used in the United States are made from high fructose corn syrup. Drinks containing high fructose corn syrup have decreased almost 25% in price since 1985 while the price of wholesome vegetables and fruits has gone up almost 40%. What kind of message is this sending to consumers?
Right along with the increase in high fructose corn syrup use, the average American consumes 600 more calories per day than they did in 1970. Calories derived from fruit and vegetables are 100% more expensive than those derived from products made with high fructose corn syrup. This, along with the fragile economy, does not make it any easier for families to make wise food choices.
High fructose corn syrup is used to sweeten most processed foods. In fact, high fructose corn syrup is present in foods that would not normally be thought of as sweet foods, such as salad dressing, mayonnaise, soup and numerous other products. High fructose corn syrup is also found in many drinks, such as soda, coffee drinks, high energy drinks and even some fruit drinks.
Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup causes body-wide inflammation and obesity. In high doses it can literally punch holes in the intestinal lining allowing nasty byproducts of toxic gut bacteria into your system resulting in obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, dementia and accelerated aging. In addition, high fructose corn syrup contains contaminants, like mercury, that are not regulated by the FDA and are highly toxic.
Action Items: Choose your corn wisely; avoid GMO corn and high fructose corn syrup but don’t be afraid to enjoy a tasty ear or two of Certified Organic sweet corn this summer!
-The Alternative Daily