The "What Do You Mean I'm Allergic to Corn?" Guide to Groceries
Corn. It seems like such a benign vegetable. It seems like a vegetable. Or perhaps a grain. At any rate, when you realize that you can't eat it anymore, it seems easy to avoid. After all, the grains are obvious.
But the uses for corn aren't. Corn is the number one cash crop in America. Approximately 40% of the corn grown in the United states is used for Ethanol. The rest is mostly ingested, but not in it's whole form. Corn, or maize as it's known in some areas of the world, is one of the most versatile crops in the world. Besides it's use as a literal fuel and as feed for humans and livestock in a relatively whole form, it can be processed into a variety of food or industry uses. It's in book bindings, disposable cutlery, candy and vitamins. It's in make up and particle board. In fact, the Corn Grower's Association estimates that there are over 4,200 uses for corn products.
What's a person with corn allergy to do?
Corn allergies are overwhelming. There's corn in this, there's corn in that. And then there's the list of over 4200 other uses.
Relax. Since there is corn in everything, give yourself some leeway. Starting somewhere will make a difference. So start by cutting the obvious sources of corn from your diet. This means you begin to get used to reading labels and looking for the word 'corn'. Sometimes it will be attached to 'starch'. Sometimes it will be in the phrase 'corn syrup' or 'high fructose corn syrup'. Regardless of how it is phrased, if it's an ingredient, leave it out. This means giving up most processed foods. I realize that, and I'm sorry. It's part of why I suggest taking this whole process in steps.
While you are cutting all of the most obvious forms of corn from your diet, focus on whole foods. Real food. Buy vegetables and rice and beans. These products are much less likely to have corn derivatives in them. It will feel ridiculously good to have something (anything!) you can just pick up and drop in your cart with a cursory glance at ingredients.
After a few days or weeks you should notice the difference. Some days you feel great, some not so much. The not-so-much days are likely the ones where you're getting more hidden forms of corn derivatives. That's okay. There's corn everywhere. Move on to the next step.
Get to Know the List
Once you are comfortable reading labels, you'll be getting the hang of skimming for that familiar four letter word "corn". But you can't stop there. Let me amend that, most people with a corn allergy can't stop there. There's still more corn to avoid.
When you talk to your doctor and first begin to accept that corn allergy is real, he or she may give you a comprehensive list. But more likely, the trend seems to be for doctors to send people with a corn allergy home to do their own research. There are a few comprehensive lists of corn derivatives available online. You can find Jenny Connor's list here, or go straight to the horse's mouth and read what the Corn Grower's Association has to say here.
Once you're familiar with The List, you'll start to see a trend. Some people are able to memorize the red flag phrases...things like 'enriched' or '*-acid' or "-ethyl-" or "cellulose". Others simply get overwhelmed and go with the theory that anything with an uspecified source is suspect. The latter seems to be the safest and easiest way of approaching grocery shopping. Unfortunately, it also leaves your cart a lot emptier.
"Help! I'm Hungry!"
Yeah, there's a lot of that going around...
No, I'm kidding. When you look at all the 'can't have's', it's easy to feel like there's nothing left to eat. The fact is, there are corn derivatives in the vast majority of food products. Going to the grocery store armed simply with a 'don't eat' list is overwhelming at best.
Unlike with many food restrictions, with a corn allergy brand loyalty is important. Some flour is safe, some isn't. It doesn't matter if it's enriched, unenriched, organic or otherwise marketed. Some brands simply have a higher risk of cross contamination or use ingredients that have corn derivatives as ingredients.
So, what's left? What can you eat? Do your research before you hit the grocery store. Think about what you normally buy, and double check ingredients. Use online resources like Delphi Forums Avoiding Corn or a corn-free blog such as this one to see what other corn allergy sufferers are eating. Find and use your local farmer's market, or participate in a local co-op. Fresh produce that comes straight from the farm is unlikely to be adulterated by corn derivatives, whereas the produce at the grocery store might be rinsed in a citric acid solution or treated with wax or other chemicals to keep it fresh and clean looking.
No, Seriously...What's Corn Free?
For those too overwhelmed to start with their own research, here's a quick primer on eating corn free for corn allergies:
- Look for All Natural Nut Butters. Store brand is often fine. The ingredients you want on the label are dry roasted (or unroasted) single nuts like 'peanuts' or 'walnuts' depending on what type of nut butter you're buying.
- Ditch Enriched: Enriched flour, enriched pasta, enriched rice...forget them all. The enrichments generally are carried in a corn starch or dextrose based medium.
- Pasta Power: Look for unenriched pasta. Personally, I like Tinkyada rice pasta. It comes from a rice only facility, where the risk of cross contamination from any other grain is practically nil.
- Whole Grains: Hot cereal is a comfort food few want to forgo. Ancient Grains Quinoa is safe for corn allergies. Just sweeten appropriately.
- Sugar and spice: Corn is used both as a traditional sweetener and as the base for most artificial sweeteners. Fir those jumping into corn allergy, look for 100% cane sugar from C&H or Domino (depending on where you live). Both brown and white sugar should be okay as long as it's 100% cane. 100% beet sugar may be alright too, but be warned that beets are rising on the 'potentially GMO' list, so if you avoid corn to avoid genetically modified foods, GMOs, then using beet sugar might not help much.
- -----------As far as spices go, single ingredient spices are almost always safe. Spice blends often have corn derivatives included to help prevent clumping.
- Produce some produce: When trying to sort out the safe from the unsafe fruits and veggies, stick to frozen for awhile. Single ingredient frozen fruits and veggies that list only the included vegetable (no salt, ascorbic acid or maltodextrin) are generally corn free.
- Coffee: Look for Cafe Christina. There are a couple of other safe brands, too, but it's the one that comes to mind and is popular in the avoiding corn community.
Hopefully that's enough to keep you going until you can track down safe versions of your favorite foods or learn to make your own. Bread is a tough one, because there are so many ways for corn to contaminate the bread making process. Rice cakes and homemade quick breads may be your best bet, at least until you get a handle on everything else. (You can't eat bread...but you can eat cake. Real cake. With lots of eggs and a bit of sugar. Smeared with all natural peanut butter. Yum!)
Corn Allergies, What Else is There to Know?
Keep in mind that corn is a grain, and as such some people with corn allergies (or sensitivities, or intolerances, or whatever you want to call it) may experience reactions to other members of the grass family including wheat, rice and cane sugar. (Yes, cane sugar. You can't be allergic to sugar, but you can react to the source)
Some people also seem to be sensitive to any GMOs. They may discover this tendency through the discovery of their reactions to corn products, but if GMOs are a problem, soy, canola and other genetically modified crops may be a problem as well. Check a well respected source like the Non GMO Project for more information.
Corn allergies don't follow the rules. I know it sounds weird, but it's true. Some research indicates that the only way to diagnose the allergy is through a double blind placebo controlled challenge test. The other problem is that corn reactions occur to any derivative, not just the ones containing corn protein. This needs further research, but seems to be a trend that is worth mentioning for anyone experiencing problems. After all, if it hurts to eat something it doesn't really matter if it should or shouldn't be problematic, it only matters that it is. So, if you are allergic to corn, trust your body.
Don't stop with your diet. There's plenty of potential for exposure to corn derivatives out there. If your symptoms continue to bother you, look for environmental exposure as well.
Don't beat yourself up when you slip up. Your body will be doing that for you. Everyone makes mistakes, and it seems like with corn allergies there are more chances to make mistakes than there are to avoid them. So, live and learn and find some antihistamines that are safe to get you through the errors.
And eat. Don't forget to stop worrying and actually eat a healthy, balanced diet. It's really easy to focus so much on what restrictions are there that you forget how important variety is. So eat corn free, be symptom free, and live freely!
Quick Links for More Info
- Corn-Free Foods (& Products) List: About The Lists
Links to peer-edited lists of items reported to be corn derivative free. A good starting place for those creating their own corn-free shopping list, but not comprehensive and may contain some errors.
- Cutting Corn: Beyond Your Diet
For those who want or need to avoid corn, food sources aren't enough. This hub addresses other areas of day to day life where corn derivatives may be found.