There is no question that America loves its corn. We grow 42% of the worlds corn and some estimates are that corn makes up 90% of the starch Americans consume . The question we should be asking is does corn really love us back? Essentially, is corn a food we should be eating? As with anything, we don’t have to look very hard online to find both sides of the debate. Due to the overwhelming number of businesses tied to growing and selling corn and corn based products, including products sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, there is a lot of misinformation out there. Below are the main concerns I came across surrounding corn health and safety.
Nearly all corn in US is genetically modified
People typically talk about GMO as a bad thing, and there is plenty of research that shows this to be true. The facts are that almost all of the corn grown in the US is GMO corn. A good chunk of that corn is used for animal feed and biofuel. However, its not necessary to go into a point by point discussion to expose the evils of GMO if we just assume they are bad and expect health conscience consumers to buy only organic or non-gmo corn based products. This of course doesn’t let corn off the hook even if we are only eating non-gmo corn.
Most of us eat the less healthy version of corn
The sad truth is most people probably aren’t eating unprocessed corn kernels, instead we choose processed corn in the form of corn oil, corn flour, corn chips, and of course high fructose corn syrup. Even though corn is a starch that can provide steady source of energy, it is lacking essential fatty acids and has a poor ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3. Another downside of corn to consider is the phytic acid content, commonly found in plant seeds, nuts and grains. Phytic acids impair absorption of iron, zinc and calcium which can lead to deficiencies over time. Processing corn into flour will result in some nutrition loss. Processing corn into oil or frying corn up as tortillas is altering corn into food to be considered by many as loaded with polyunsaturated fats and quite inflammatory.
High fructose corn syrup is worse than sugar
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) has been well studied and I think its pretty clear this one is not good for us. HFCS is found in 75% of supermarket products and shows up in foods we would never expect like apple sauce and protein bars. You can just follow the money to figure out why we use HFCS in everything, it is around 20% cheaper and less is needed to match the sweetness of sugar. The problem of course is that HFCS is connected to diseases like type2 diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. There are studies that also show it harms the intestinal lining, and might even contain toxins like mercury. The corn industry spends millions of dollars to get its message out that HFCS and sugar are the same, despite not having the science to back its claims. HFCS is different than sugar chemically because their sugar molecules are considered unbound and there is a slightly higher ratio of fructose to glucose. Without a strong chemical bond, HFCS is rapidly absorbed into the blood stream, going directly to the liver and triggering the production of fats (aka lipogenesis) leading to a fatty liver. There is also concern around industrial processing of corn to produce HFCS using mercury. Some studies suggest HFCS consumption could also mean an exposure to toxic levels of mercury. Even with all the evidence that HFCS is more harmful to us than sugar, our per capita consumption is still around 42 pounds per year.
Mycotoxins are out of control
A big problem in agriculture and farming of grains is toxic fungi, this of course includes all corn. There are at least 22 varieties of fungi that can infect crops and as a result are exposing people and animals to them. Fungi can produce mycotoxins, considered secondary metabolites, and as you probably guessed from the name mycotoxins are toxic. It’s difficult to know what the exposure and buildup of these mycotoxins do to us, but they have been researched for decades and there is no disputing they can cause us harm at high levels. Mycotoxins hormone disruption, immunosuppression, inflammation, damage to digestive organs and even cancer. Two well researched mycotoxins are aflatoxins and fumonisins, both known to cause cancer. Two big challenges to eliminating mycotoxins are 1) they are poorly regulated and screened for in our food supply and 2) most mycotoxins survive processing and cooking. Screening for mycotoxins is regulated by the FDA and there are actionable limits for aflatoxins, but compliance and testing remains inconsistent. Testing issues include checking a small sample size which may not be a representative. There are also issues tracking the entire supply chain, since mold and mycotoxins can be introduced at any point, depending on the storage and transport conditions. Since mycotoxins are not actually alive, you can’t kill them, instead you must break them down to reduce their toxicity. Some mycotoxin levels can be decreased from high heat for extended periods, but this can then destroy other nutrients in the food.
Tips for navigating the corn field
Given that corn has so many potential health concerns I think there are certainly some tips that would be useful for minimizing your exposure.
- See if you can stick to eating corn as a vegetable. Of course try to make that organically grown fresh corn.
- If you decide to eat foods made from corn, search for organic or GMO free corn from reputable sources. The hope here is that they go above and beyond to source corn that is routinely monitored and tested to avoid GMO grown corn as well as mold and mycotoxin contamination.
- I say just avoid all processed food and drinks with HFCS. The occasional HFCS may creep into what you eat, but if you aim for 100% elimination you don’t have to be overly concerned about tracking your consumption levels.