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August 31, 2002
Go For Gold
Corn has well-known nutritional benefits—but it's important to make sure you know what you're getting
By Mitchell Clute
Corn has come a long way since it was first domesticated in Mexico more than 6,000 years ago from a wild grass called teosinte. Its kernels, dried and often ground, have long been a dietary staple across many cultures. Corn is the only major grain crop native to the Americas and was so important to indigenous peoples that the Mayan creation story claims human flesh came from the sacred maize.
Today, corn trails only rice as the most popular grain crop worldwide. In the United States, it's the single largest crop in terms of total bushels produced annually; 9.5 billion bushels were harvested in 2001, according to the Kansas Corn Council. That's an earful of good news because, from a health standpoint, corn has solid nutritional credentials.
Kernel Of Health
Corn is packed with vitamins and minerals. "One advantage of corn over other grains is that yellow corn does contain beta-carotene, while all other grains are devoid of it," says Melissa Diane Smith, a certified nutritionist based in Tucson, Arizona. One cup of yellow corn contains about 10 percent of the U.S. recommended daily intake of vitamin A, which accounts for corn's sunny color. (White corn, though delicious, contains no beta-carotene.)
Corn also contains vitamin C—especially nutrient-dense baby corn, frequently used in Asian cooking—and is an excellent source of several minerals, particularly potassium and magnesium. Each ear also offers about three grams of protein and fiber, making it a great fiber source for kids. (Offer your children fresh corn on the cob or a bran muffin and see which they choose!)
Still, as any well-read vegetarian knows, corn by itself is not a complete protein source because it lacks significant levels of the nine essential amino acids, particularly lysine and tryptophan, that the body must obtain through food. Consequently, it's best to balance a corn-based vegetarian meal with another vegetable or legume, such as squash or beans.
While knowing corn's nutritional profile may encourage you to include more of this golden grain in your diet, a more pressing concern to modern consumers is the likelihood that the corn you eat has been genetically modified. Beyond fresh corn on the cob, corn and its derivatives are found in nearly every food product available, as a common thickener (cornstarch), sweetener (corn syrup), and more. A careful look at package ingredients will reveal corn in places you never expected. What may also surprise you is that, according to Consumers Union, more than 35 percent of the U.S. corn crop now contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Of this amount, more than half is so-called Bt corn, bred to contain a pesticidal genetic trait taken from the naturally occurring soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis.
Many scientists believe that GMOs could create long-term problems to consumers, including the risk of allergic reaction and subtle alterations in foods' nutritional values. Organic farmers have an additional concern, that insects may become resistant to Bt, taking away the usefulness of one of the few natural pesticides available to them. Another major challenge facing organic farmers is genetic drift from cross-pollination—a nearly unavoidable occurrence because corn pollen can travel miles, either with the wind or via pollinating insects. Further complicating the issue, government regulations place the burden of avoiding contamination on the organic farmer, not on his or her GMO-growing counterpart.
Because the use of GM corn is so ubiquitous, the only way to assure you're not getting GM products is to buy organic. When shopping, look for products labeled "made with nongenetically modified ingredients," and seek out organic corn on the cob, whether from a natural foods store or at a local farmers' market. Kernels should be firm and unwrinkled; larger, tougher kernels mean that the natural sugars in sweet corn have already converted to starch.
Stalk Your Sources
As every cook knows, few things are as satisfying as biting into the perfect ear of corn. But even when fresh cobs cooked on the grill are a distant memory, you're still eating corn in nearly every food you buy, from baking powder to soft drinks to cereal. Check product labels for corn-derived ingredients (see "Get an Earful"). Use contact information from labels to call manufacturers and find out what safeguards they use to assure sourcing for non-GM corn. Patronize companies that are careful to avoid GM products. It'll make you a smarter shopper and can help assure a healthier family and a healthier planet.
Mitchell Clute is a freelance writer, musician and avid chef.
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