The processed food and meat industries are centered around industrially produced corn—and most people are unaware.
Some form of corn is found in nearly every processed food item, whether that be as a sweetener (such as high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, and sorbitol), a texturizer (such as dextrin and maltodextrin), a grain (as in corn flour, cornmeal, or corn gluten), an alcohol (ethanol), a protein (zein), corn starch, or any of several other derivatives.
Corn serves as feed for most of our meat sources—factory-farmed chickens, pigs, cows, and even farm-raised fish. It’s also used to make corn oil, found in cooking oils and margarine, and countless food additives hidden in an endless array of food products.
While the prolific use of corn is testimony to its virtues as a grain, there are many problems that have developed from so much industrially produced corn.
The not well-recognized downsides include food allergy, food intolerance, food addiction, binge-eating, other serious and confusing health issues, and a corn-based agricultural system that consumes a large amount of natural resources but is inefficient at producing healthy food.
Most corn in the food supply also is genetically modified, including a modification so it can be sprayed with higher amounts of glyphosate, a problematic herbicide.
Corn is heavily subsidized—to the tune of $116 billion from 1995 to 2020, according to Department of Agriculture data compiled by the Environmental Working Group.
Annual corn subsidies have risen in recent years, according to data compiled by the Agriculture Fairness Alliance (AFA).
“In 2020, corn growers received at least $9 billion in taxpayer supports through bailouts, commodity protection programs, disaster relief, conservation programs, subsidized crop insurance, and trade disruption compensation payments,” a report by AFA states.
Different Types of Reaction to Corn
Although few people realize it, many types of lesser well-known adverse reactions to corn can occur. The only type that conventional allergists look for is a true food allergy.
True Food Allergy
A true food allergy to corn, in which the body releases Immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies, can cause dramatic symptoms such as hives, skin rashes, asthma, or labored breathing to quickly develop.
A 2008 double-blind, placebo-controlled study, published in the journal Clinical and Experimental Allergy, found that corn is a cause of IgE allergic reactions to foods in adults and children, and that the majority of patients in the study developed their allergy to corn as adults.
An editorial in the same journal issue explained that corn has been reported to cause severe allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis, particularly in areas where corn is commonly eaten, such as southern Europe and Mexico.
Food intolerance, sometimes called food sensitivity, is an adverse reaction to food in which there is no involvement of the immune system. According to the Cleveland Clinic, a food intolerance affects your digestive system and occurs when your digestive system can’t break down certain foods. People with this condition develop gas, diarrhea, and other digestive problems.
While the Cleveland Clinic and other sources make the presence or absence of any immune response the defining difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance, other sources are less definitive.
According to a 2013 editorial in the Indian Journal of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, intolerance to food can result from enzyme defects, direct irritant effects, or from toxins present in food. Usually, the symptoms are of a more chronic nature and may include gastrointestinal tract (abdominal cramp, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, and irritable bowel syndrome), but can include skin (rashes, urticaria, dermatitis, and eczema) and respiratory tract (nasal congestion, sinusitis, and asthma). There’s some evidence for the use of food-specific immunoglobulin G (IgG) (an antibody associated with an immune response) levels as a guide to identify food intolerance.
In one study of 71 patients with allergic symptoms lacking laboratory evidence of allergy, 62 percent of them tested positive for IgG antibodies against corn. The study revealed that females are more prone to develop food intolerance than males, and many people with this condition go undiagnosed.
Food Addiction and Binge-Eating
Some people crave and binge-eat corn. A likely reason this occurs is because corn is a high-calorie, high-carbohydrate, high-glycemic (blood sugar-spiking) food that can cause blood sugar highs followed by blood sugar lows that can lead to cravings, at least in some people.
Another possible reason might be because of a not well-understood phenomenon called food allergy addiction, in which the body physiologically becomes addicted to the allergen’s presence and starts craving it and wanting more and more of it.
Regardless of exactly why addictive eating of corn occurs, in my work counseling clients who have difficulty controlling their eating habits, I have found that strictly avoiding corn for clients who crave and binge-eat corn is critical to overcome the condition.
“The Virgin Diet” author J.J. Virgin also recommends avoiding corn. Not only do cravings and the urge to overly eat usually go away, but so, too, do other symptoms people didn’t know were caused from reactions to corn.
The GMO and Pesticide Issue
A complicating factor in teasing out reactions to corn is the fact that the vast majority of it is genetically modified (GM) so that it can tolerate, and therefore be sprayed with, high amounts of chemical herbicides and have its own built-in insecticide.
Animal research points to serious health issues, especially liver and kidney toxicity, from eating genetically modified corn.
A 2014 study published in Environmental Sciences Europe shared results from the first animal trial examining the long-term effects of exposure to Roundup-tolerant GM corn and the complete Roundup herbicide formulation. The study linked varying levels of both GM corn and Roundup to severe liver and kidney damage in male rats and to mammary tumors in female rats. The female rats showed a twofold to threefold increase in mortality, and deaths were earlier.
Increased risk of death and earlier deaths was also evident in the groups of male rats that were fed GM corn.
Recovering After Corn
The formation of new proteins in GM corn may cause the body to react by producing high levels of a type of white blood cell typically involved in allergies.
In a 2013 Elle magazine article that went viral online, “The Bad Seed: The Health Risks of Genetically Modified Corn,” writer Caitlin Shetterly described how she had a collection of weird symptoms, including pain radiating throughout her body, rashes, exhaustion, headaches, nausea, and insomnia. She saw numerous doctors and tried many therapies, to no avail.
She eventually visited an allergist who told her he believed she had developed a reaction to GM corn, because changes in the DNA of GM corn can act as allergenic proteins that provoke the overproduction of eosinophils, a pro-inflammatory type of white blood cell that leads to inflammatory conditions through the body and multi-system symptoms. Her doctor recommended that she remove all corn from her diet. It was difficult to do, but when she did, most of her symptoms went away, some fairly quickly.
A few years before I read Shetterly’s article in 2013, I had a client who suffered from multi-system symptoms and had been diagnosed with Eosinophilia-Myalgia Syndrome, a systemic immune condition characterized by high levels of eosinophils. I recommended that she remove GM organisms (GMO) and all corn from her diet, and within just a few months of doing this, her eosinophil counts reached normal levels for the first time in almost 20 years.
She experienced so many different health improvements, including remarkable improvements in allergies and asthma and normalization of heart disease risk factors, that within a year she saved $7,000 in medical expenses from the previous year! That client’s success story was so powerful, it prompted me to write my book “Going Against GMOs.”
Unhealthy for Us and the Environment
The U.S. corn system is inefficient at feeding the American people a diverse and nutritious diet essential for long-term health.
In a 2013 article reprinted in Scientific American, Jonathan Foley, the founding director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, wrote that corn uses more land than any other U.S. crop and uses large amounts of other natural resources such as water. It’s also highly vulnerable to disaster, disease, and pests, as are all massively grown monoculture crops.
I summed it up this way in “Going Against GMOs”:
“It’s time to understand that the American corn system has created a mess in more ways than one for us. If we take a stand and as much as possible avoid mass-produced sources of even non-GMO corn, including corn-fed meat sources, we emphatically say no to the corn-centered agricultural system that is making us sick.”
Basics to Avoiding Corn
If you’re ready to challenge yourself to stay away from any product that contains corn and see if it makes a difference in how you feel— or if you already know you have a corn allergy, corn intolerance, corn addiction, excess weight, or blood-sugar-related health problems—understand that strictly avoiding corn isn’t as easy as it sounds. It goes far beyond steering clear of obvious sources such as popcorn, corn on the cob, corn chips, corn tortillas, or tamales.
Corn is ubiquitous in our food supply. Its derivatives (for example, cornstarch, corn meal, corn bran, corn oil, corn syrup, citric acid, dextrose, fructose, xylitol, and xanthan gum) are used in so many ways that corn is found in products you would never suspect, such as deli meat, regular and gluten-free baked goods, crackers, candy, chewing gum, condiments, sauces, salad dressings, and nutritional supplements.
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act requires food manufacturers to label products that include the top eight food allergens: milk; eggs; peanuts; soybeans; wheat; tree nuts; fish; and shellfish. However, it doesn’t list corn as an allergen that needs to be labeled.
That means avoiding corn is even more difficult than staying away from other food allergens. It requires a high degree of knowledge and often some detective work.
4 Tips for Steering Clear of Corn
It takes time to learn to be a corn-savvy shopper, but following general guidelines is a good first step. Try these four tips:
Stay away from processed foods whenever possible. This is, by far, the most important guideline to follow. Choose fresh fruits and vegetables, and unprocessed nuts, seeds, and beans.
Avoid conventional eggs, chicken, beef, and pork from animals that have been fed corn. Instead, seek out 100 percent grass-fed and grass-finished meat, pasture-raised eggs, and wild-caught fish.
Learn the potential corn derivatives to avoid. Get up to speed on the long list of potential hidden sources of corn on food ingredient lists by visiting corn allergy websites and learning common corn derivatives.
Narrow down choices of products by looking for those labeled “corn-free” or “paleo.” Foods with these terms on labels shouldn’t contain any corn, but be cautious. There are no regulatory definitions for these terms, and people at food companies who create the labels sometimes don’t know all the hidden ingredients that contain corn. Use your judgment when evaluating the ingredients. If you’re in doubt, directly call or write to companies asking about the sources of their ingredients.