Is Corn Healthy? Surprising Facts About the Nutritional Value of Corn

Nutritional value of corn - Dr. Axe

People eating the average American diet today unknowingly consume more corn every day in one way or another than they’d probably ever believe. Confused about the nutritional value of corn and whether or not it’s bad for you? Well then, you’re not alone …

Although unprocessed, organic, non-GMO corn itself isn’t necessarily bad for you — considering it’s been eaten for thousands of years and actually has some health benefits — the kind of corn widely consumed today is another story. The types of corn so commonly included in both children’s and adults’ diets today are the overly modified kinds — found in fried corn tortilla chips, buttery popcorn, high fructose corn syrup, corn oil, corn flour and other packaged food products.


The Pros and Cons of Eating Corn

Corn (scientific name Zea mays), called maize in Spanish, has been a staple ingredient in South, Central and North America for thousands of years. First domesticated over 8,000 years ago, corn has been a traditional food for Native Americans and is now included in the diets of people living around the world — including many populations in India, Mexico, Italy and nearly every nation in Central America.

Real, traditional corn is grown throughout the warm summer months on stalks of “ears” that come in far more colors than the standard bright yellow; corn can be found in different varieties, including red, pink, black, purple, multicolored and blue. Although it’s most popular as the staple ingredient used to make tortillas, tacos or burritos, corn is also used around the world to make polenta, flour, fritters, soups and sauces.

 

 

When combined with other plant foods like beans, vegetables and avocados, the nutritional value of corn has helped support growing populations, especially living in impoverished areas, for many years. As a “staple crop,” still today corn provides a high amount of important vitamins, minerals, fiber, carbohydrates and important calories to millions of people every year.

When eaten in an unprocessed way and properly prepared, non-GMO whole corn kernels actually have some impressive nutrients to offer — and this isn’t shocking considering that corn is a vegetable, after all. For example, organic corn is a vitamin C food, magnesium-rich food, and contains certain B vitamins and potassium. It also supplies a good dose of two antioxidants linked to eye and skin health called zeaxanthin and lutein. Eating fresh corn on the cob also gives you a good amount of the daily dietary fiber you need, along with some complex carbohydrates that are a good energy source.

Unfortunately, GMO foods are produced by companies like Monsanto in order to be able to grow in depleted soils that hold less nutrients. Therefore, you definitely want to go organic and check for GMO labeling when buying corn or any corn-containing products — since aside from having other problems, GMO corn doesn’t contain the same level of beneficial vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that organic corn has.

In the U.S and most other western developed nations, eating fresh, organic corn on the cob is not the problem that most people face; rather, overconsuming highly processed foods that have multiple chemically engineered ingredients derived from corn is. The problem is that nearly all of the corn available in standard American supermarkets today is genetically modified, plus it’s usually also unrecognizable considering how much processing it’s gone through.

 

Guide to Non-GMO Corn

 


The Nutritional Value of Corn 

One large ear of corn on the cob has about:

  • 123 calories
  • 5 grams protein
  • 2 grams fat
  • 4 grams fiber
  • 27 grams of carbohydrates
  • 0.1 milligram thiamine (7 percent DV)
  • 0.1 milligram vitamin B6 (7 percent DV)
  • 19.5 milligrams folate (5 percent DV)
  • 3 milligrams vitamin C (5 percent DV)
  • 158 milligrams potassium (5 percent DV)
  • 18.3 milligrams magnesium (5 percent DV)
  • 47.2 milligrams phosphorus (5 percent DV)

5 Health Benefits of Unprocessed Non-GMO Corn

1. Good Source of Antioxidants

Corn is a high-antioxidant food. The different color varieties of corn kernels signify various types of phytonutrient combinations and nutritional values of corn. The most popular type, yellow corn, is particularly a good source of carotenoid antioxidants, especially lutein and zeaxanthin (also found in squash, carrots and other deeply colored fruits or vegetables). Other types of corn supply antioxidants such as anthocyanins, protocatechuic acid and hydroxybenzoic acid, beta-carotene, caffeic acid, and ferulic acid.

Carotenoid antioxidants, the kind most abundant in corn kernels, are known to support the immune system and defend the eyes and skin against oxidative stress. Although many antioxidants are heat-sensitive and can become reduced during cooking, some research has shown that drying corn slowly at low temperatures — much like traditional populations did to preserve the kernels during colder months — preserves a high percentage of the nutritional value of corn, especially the beneficial antioxidants.

2. High in Fiber

Like all vegetables and whole plant foods, corn is a food that provides a nice dose of filling fiber, with about 4.5 grams of fiber per cup of kernels. It has a high ratio of insoluble-to-soluble fiber, which means it has various beneficial effects on the digestive system.

Insoluble fiber is the type that moves throughout the digestive system unabsorbed and metabolized, which is how it helps us go to the bathroom! And certain types of fiber, especially soluble fiber, reach the lower part of our large intestines where they are metabolized by intestinal bacteria and turned into short chain fatty acids (SCFAs). This is beneficial for supporting the”good bacteria” in your gut and creating a healthy microbiome.

SCFAs from high-fiber foods also supply energy to the cells that line our large intestines and keep the digestive tract in good shape, helping us produce regular bowel movements and flushing our body of waste and toxins. That’s why SCFAs are linked to better intestinal cellular function and, therefore, might be beneficial for preventing cancer of the digestive organs, including colon cancer.

3. Slowly Digested Source of Carbohydrates

Corn is high in starch, which is a type of complex carbohydrate that supports steady energy levels. Unlike refined carbohydrates, which zap us of energy and aren’t filling for long, foods high in starch and fiber are beneficial for controlling blood sugar levels because the fiber slows down the rate at which glucose (sugar) is released into the bloodstream.

Aside from supplying fiber, corn also has a decent amount of protein for a vegetable, with five to six grams per ear. Fiber and protein together help fill us up better than carbohydrates alone because they stabilize the passage of food through our digestive tract and help prevent drastic blood sugar fluctuations. Plus, protein foods have their own list of benefits.

Relatively speaking, corn is also low in calories while still providing nutrients. A large ear of corn only has about 125 calories, making it a reasonable addition to a healthy meal. In fact, this is less than most grains and is roughly equivalent to eating a nutritious banana, except the corn actually has much less sugar and more protein and fiber. There’s usually nothing wrong with otherwise healthy people having organic, non-GMO corn when they’d like, especially compared to refined carbohydrates like pasta or bread, sweetened baked goods, and gluten-containing grains.

4. Naturally Gluten-Free

Although corn is usually grouped together with other grains and used in similar ways, it’s actually not a “grain” and doesn’t contain any gluten. What’s the deal with gluten? Consuming gluten is linked to many different negative symptoms, including digestive issues like bloating, cramping, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue and skin problems. Since gluten is problematic for many people — even those who don’t have celiac disease or a confirmed gluten allergy — corn or corn flour makes a good stand-in for wheat or other gluten-containing foods.

5. Part of Traditional Diets Linked to Longevity and Overall Health

Today, levels of obesity, hypertension and insulin resistance are high among indigenous communities living in North America that have veered away from their traditional diets and began adopting a standard “western diet.” According to a 2007 report published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, changes in dietary patterns of these populations toward consuming more high-calorie foods, sugar, refined grain flour and sweetened beverages have resulted in far more health risks than their previous diet based primarily on corn, legumes, rice and vegetables.

Researchers believe that a return to traditional dietary patterns can help reduce these disease problems because of better balance of calories and beneficial nutrients. They note that staple crops like corn and legumes have antidiabetic, antioxidant and antihypertension potential. These foods also provide certain protective phenolic phytochemicals that are beneficial for heart health, reversing hypertension as a natural remedy for high blood pressure and controlling blood sugar levels.


4 Scenarios to Avoid Eating Corn

1. When It’s Genetically Modified

Reports show that roughly 80 percent of the foods in the standard American diet have some sort of GMO corn-derived ingredient in them. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know when a product contains GMOs because the United States Department of Agriculture still doesn’t require that GMO foods be labeled as so (not the case in the European Union, where GMO food must be clearly labeled).

Corn is the No. 1 grown crop in the Unites States and currently the second most genetically modified ingredient in the world (second to soy). About 88 percent of all corn grown in the U.S  each year is genetically modified.

If you’re not familiar with the facts on GMOs, they’re exactly what their name implies: organisms that have been altered genetically. In the case of GMO corn, the actual corn seeds are modified in a lab before being planted, with the intention of making them resistant to predators like weeds, insects and rodents. Essentially, the purpose of GMOs is to create crops that have built-in defense mechanisms against things that normally threaten them.

While for some years there were questions as to whether or not GMO foods were actually harmful, today GMO foods are linked to tumors, allergies and even earlier death.

Other health concerns with GMO foods include:

  • Changes in the gut environment
  • Increased risk for antibiotic resistance
  • Problems with hormonal (endocrine system) function
  • Disorders of the reproductive system
  • Increases in aging symptoms

A 2009 analysis published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences revealed that when mice were fed three different strains of GMO corn, they experienced negative reactions in their kidneys, liver and detoxifying organs. The GMO corn consumption also had noticeable effects on their heart function, adrenal glands, spleen and haematopoietic system, all of which were considered a direct result of metabolic changes due to the GMO seed intake and signs of “hepatorenal toxicity,” according to the researchers.

Corn is also commonly used to make a genetically modified oil that is a strong inflammatory and highly likely to become rancid (or “toxic”) when used in cooking. In fact, because corn oil contains delicate fatty acids that are highly susceptible to heat and light, there’s a good chance that most of the bottled corn oil sitting on grocery store shelves has already gone bad.

2. When It’s Used to Make High Fructose Corn Syrup

Despite what manufacturers might make it seem like, high fructose corn syrup isn’t natural and is the furthest thing from being healthy. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a fructose-glucose liquid sweetener alternative to sucrose (common table sugar). It’s completely man-made, highly processed, and was first introduced to the food and beverage industry in the 1970s as a cheap way to sweeten processed foods.

Even though calorie-for-calorie, HFCS might not provide more than regular organic sugar does, it has more of the type of sugar called fructose — and this means different effects on the body and ways of altering metabolic functions. Whether there is a link between fructose, HFCS or sucrose and increased risk of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, or fatty infiltration of the liver or muscle remains in dispute. We know that high-sugar diets of any kind raise the risk for poor health, obesity and various diseases, but different studies have arrived at various conclusions about whether or not HFCS causes more weight gain than regular white sugar.

Believe it or not, it’s estimated that today approximately 25 percent of the average American’s caloric intake comes from sugars, and the largest portion is in the form of fructose, usually found in packaged sweet products and sweetened drinks. Much better options are unprocessed natural sweeteners like raw honey, blackstrap molasses or pure maple syrup. However, even these natural sweeteners should be used in moderation and shouldn’t provide a substantial amount of calories to your diet each day.

3. When It’s Found in Other Forms of Processed Foods

GMO corn is used to make dozens of different ingredients added to packaged, processed foods. Before you buy any food product, always read the entire food label to make sure the product is safe and generally free from anything you can’t pronounce. Also, remember that food manufacturers change ingredients in packaged foods all the time as well as preparation methods, so even things you wouldn’t suspect have GMO corn ingredients in them still might.

According to the Live Corn Free website, some of these to look out for on package ingredient labels include: citric acid, confectioner’s sugar, corn flour, caramel flavor, corn fructose, corn meal, corn oil, corn syrup, dextrin and dextrose, fructose, lactic acid, malt, malodextrin, mono- and diglycerides, monosodium glutamate, and sorbitol. For a more complete list with over 50 corn-derived modified ingredients, you can refer to the Corn Allergens website.

Just another reason to skip the “middle aisles” of the grocery store where the boxed items are found and to “shop the perimeter” instead where the real, whole foods are!

4. If You Have a Sensitive Digestive System 

Even though corn is gluten-free and technically not a grain, it’s possible for corn to still aggravate your digestive system and cause stomachaches, especially if you suffer from other common food allergies, sensitivities to FODMAP foods, IBS or leaky gut syndrome.

One reason this might be the case is because of its fiber content and corn’s ability to ferment in the gut. Fiber-rich corn can be good for you, but it also contains cellulose, which is a type of fiber that humans can’t break down easily. This happens because we lack a necessary enzyme to fully digest it, and therefore, some people experience gas and other discomfort when eating certain fibrous foods. One possible remedy might be to blend, puree or chew corn longer, which helps it pass through the digestive tract more easily.

Corn allergies are actually pretty rare, but if you suffer from any issues when eating corn (bloating, changes in stool, diarrhea or gas, for example) then the only real treatment option is to avoid corn and all corn derivatives as much as possible. To cut out corn products from your diet altogether, you can try substituting: pureed fruit or pure fruit juice, raw honey, coconut palm sugar, pure maple syrup, potato starch, rice starch, coconut flour, almond flour or tapioca.


The Bottom Line on Corn

Organic, non-GMO corn can be a part of an otherwise balanced and healthy diet, but the same can’t be said for GMO corn and processed corn-derivative ingredients. How can you be sure you’re not consuming GMO corn? Without proper labeling, avoiding any ingredient made with GMO corn can be very hard, so the key is to eat real whole foods and avoid those that come in packages as much as possible.

Here are some recommendations for keeping GMO foods, including corn, out of your body as much as possible:

  • Look for and buy foods that are labeled GMO-free and ideally organic; organic foods by law cannot contain more than 5 percent GMO-derived ingredients.
  • Check ingredients carefully whenever buying packaged foods so you know exactly what’s going into your food.
  • Avoid all foods with corn oil (or other refined vegetable oils like canola and safflower that are also likely GMO).
  • Avoid foods made with high fructose corn syrup.
  • Shop at your local farmers market and ask about the quality of the corn.
  • Considering growing your own corn (using non-GMO seeds!) so you know you’re eating the freshest and highest quality you can.

When shopping, keep in mind that there’s a difference between “sweet corn” and “field corn” in most cases. Sweet corn is the type that most people eat whole, while field corn is usually the kind genetically modified, made into livestock feed and used to make a multitude of processed chemical ingredients. While nearly all field corn grown in the U.S. is GMO, most sweet corn is not. Some reports show that only 3 percent to 4 percent of the sweet corn grown in the U.S. each year is GMO.

Read Next: Peanut Butter Nutrition Facts: Is It Bad for You?


From the sound of it, you might think leaky gut only affects the digestive system, but in reality it can affect more. Because Leaky Gut is so common, and such an enigma, I’m offering a free webinar on all things leaky gut. Click here to learn more about the webinar.


Josh Axe

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