Q: My teenage daughter figured out that she develops gas and bloating every time she eats something with corn in it. I, on the other hand, love corn products and crave them, and end up bingeing on them. Does that mean that both my daughter and I have an allergy to corn? And, if so, how can we avoid it?
Corn Allergy vs Sensitivity
It’s possible to have a true allergic reaction to corn—where the body releases immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies—which manifests in dramatic symptoms such as hives, skin rashes, asthma, or labored breathing. But this type of reaction is very rare
More common are food sensitivities, also called delayed-onset food allergies, which are immune responses that involve the release of immunoglobulin G (IgG), not IgE. Symptoms may not appear until hours or days after you’ve eaten the offending food, and can include headaches, joint and muscle pain, upset stomach, fatigue, nausea, bloating, abdominal pain, and diarrhea.
Other people crave and binge-eat corn, likely because corn is a high-carbohydrate, high-glycemic food that causes blood sugar spikes followed by blood sugar lows that can lead to cravings. Another possible reason might be because of a poorly understood phenomenon called food allergy addiction, in which the body becomes addicted to the allergen’s presence and starts craving it.
In my work counseling clients who have difficulty controlling their eating habits, I have found that strictly avoiding corn is just as important for people who crave it as avoiding sugar and gluten products. The Virgin Diet author JJ Virgin also recommends avoiding corn. Not only do cravings usually go away, but so, too, do other symptoms people didn’t know were caused from sensitivity to corn.
GMO Corn and Pesticides
A complicating factor in teasing out reactions to corn is the fact that the vast majority of corn sold in the U.S. is genetically modified (GM) and sprayed with synthetic chemical pesticides. The pesticides used on or in corn are linked to damage to the gut wall and intestinal microflora imbalances, which are associated with gastrointestinal problems and many other ailments.
Some people report that their gastrointestinal conditions improve after they switch to organic, non-GM corn products. But for many people with corn sensitivity, corn addiction, and carbohydrate sensitivity or blood-sugar- and insulin-related health problems, the answer is strict avoidance of corn and its derivatives, whether organic or not.
How to Avoid Corn
Staying away from any product that contains corn isn’t always as easy as it sounds. It goes far beyond steering clear of the obvious—popcorn, corn-on-the-cob, corn chips, corn tortillas, and tamales—because corn is ubiquitous in our food supply. Its derivatives (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, including deli meat, baked goods, crackers, candy, chewing gum, condiments, sauces, and salad dressing.
The 2004 Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act requires food manufacturers to label products that include the top food allergens: milk, eggs, peanuts, soy, wheat, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish. The law, however, does not list corn as an allergen that needs to be labeled. That means avoiding corn is even more difficult than staying away from other problematic ingredients. It requires a high degree of knowledge and often some detective work.
Tips for Steering Clear of Corn
It takes time to learn to become a corn-savvy shopper, but following these general guidelines is a good first step:
- Avoid processed foods whenever possible. This is by far the most important guideline to follow. Choose fresh fruits and vegetables and unprocessed nuts, seeds, beans, meats, and other products.
- If you are highly sensitive, avoid conventional eggs, chicken, beef, and pork produced from animals that are fed corn. Instead, seek out 100% grass-fed and grass-finished meat, pasture-raised eggs, and wild-caught fish.
- Learn the names of corn derivatives to avoid. Get up to speed on the long list of potential hidden sources of corn on food ingredient lists by visiting CornAllergens.com.
- Look for products that are marketed as corn-free—but be cautious. In the United States, there is no regulatory definition for “corn-free,” so food manufacturers can establish their own definitions, and sometimes people who work at the companies don’t know all the ingredients that contain corn. Use your judgment, or call companies when in doubt.
- Look for products that are labeled “Paleo.” Foods that are truly based on the grain-free hunter-gatherer diet should not contain any corn. However, some products that are marketed as Paleo contain ingredients such as xanthan gum, which is usually made from corn. Always read the label, and be discriminating. Call or write the company if you aren’t sure.
Corn-Free Alternatives to Common Products
The most popular form of synthetic vitamin C found in supplements is ascorbic acid, which is usually derived from corn. To avoid corn-based vitamin C, seek out vitamin C supplements made from corn-free sources, such as tapioca. Brands derived from tapioca include Source Naturals Corn-Free Non-GMO C-1000 and Ecological Formulas (Non-Corn Source) Vitamin C-1000.
You can also look for vitamin C made from organic fruit. NutriGold Organic Whole-Food Vitamin C Gold is made from an organic berry blend. Pure Synergy Pure Radiance 100% Natural Vitamin C Capsules are made from wild-harvested camu camu and organic acerola cherries with nine organic berries and fruits.