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Bethany Hubbard/MEDILL

Though corn is not one of the "big eight," it is a fairly common allergen.


A world built kernel by kernel

by Bethany Hubbard
May 26, 2011


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Bethany Hubbard/MEDILL

Many everyday products contain corn derivatives.

hubbard corn cans

Bethany Hubbard/MEDILL

Consumers can buy corn fresh, in cans, frozen and processed into items such as chips and tortillas.

corn graph bethany

Bethany Hubbard/MEDILL

Data from the National Corn Growers Association.

What do shampoo, conditioner, relish, toothpaste, Skittles, paint and blue jeans all have in common?

Corn.

A corn derivative can be found in all of these items, something I recently discovered when I developed an intolerance to this versatile yellow vegetable.

My epiphany came in October. After giving up gluten, with the hope that it would help my asthma, I began to eat corn products instead. Corn tortillas, corn cereal, corn chips, cornbread – corn was a part of my daily diet.

Several months later, after a few weeks of severe stomach cramps and nausea, I began to connect the dots. Every meal with corn brought hours of inexplicable pain.

I was finally convinced of my failing relationship with corn when I accidentally ate stir-fry made with tofu that had been flash-fried in corn oil. I went through all the ingredients, and couldn’t pinpoint a culprit, until I took another look at the tofu wrapper.

This sparked a quest to learn more about my yellow nemesis. Through endless Google searches, I discovered that it was not just my food I had to worry about. Could corn be the cause for my itchy skin? I’d changed lotions several times, but could not find a product that did not cause irritation.

I began to look at the labels on my beauty products, and suddenly all I could see was corn: zea mays, sorbitol, xanthan gum, dextrose, lysine, citric acid.

Even some of my medications, such as Claritin, taken as preventative treatment for my allergies, contain corn derivatives.

The corn industry applauds the prevalence of its products. The Corn Refiners Association wants people to know how big a role corn plays in diverse products and promotes the fact on its home page.

“Corn in our daily lives: From the toothpaste you use in the morning to the book you read at bedtime, corn plays a part in nearly every aspect of our lives,” the website states.

Still, many people are oblivious to such information. Ask a person if they eat corn, and they might mention summer grilling season, movie popcorn, or grandma’s corn muffins. But vitamins, yogurt and Tylenol most likely won’t make the list, yet all three may contain corn derivatives.

Others might think of corn syrup, thanks to the recent ads rebranding the vegetable-derived sweetener.

The goal of the campaign is to relabel high fructose corn syrup as “corn sugar.”

“Health and nutrition experts—including doctors, dietitians, researchers and professional organizations — are in agreement that whether it’s corn sugar or cane sugar, your body can’t tell the difference. Sugar is sugar,” it states on cornsugar.com.

Corn is not only prevalent, it is the cornerstone of a powerful industry involved in all factions of manufacturing.

One bushel, or 56 pounds, of corn can create 31.5 pounds of starch, 33 pounds of sweetener or 22.4 pounds of PLA fiber/polymer, according to the “2011 World of Corn” report by the National Corn Growers Association.

The U.S. select crop value of corn in 2010 was $65.79 billion, according to the association. While frustrated corn-allergy sufferers have created several blogs and support sites, there is not a lot of official information available. Consumers have banded together online to post lists of products that are corn-free and lists of ingredients that are derived from corn. One list has more than 180 ingredients on it.

Only eight allergens, known as the “big eight,” are recognized in the U.S. as being extremely prevalent: tree nuts, peanuts, fish, shellfish, soy, wheat, dairy and eggs.

“The eight main allergens are the most common, and that’s why those are the allergens that are covered by labeling laws,” said Barbara Rosenstein, director of communications for the Food Allergy Initiative in New York City. “But, of course, people can be allergic to any food. There’s a very wide range of food allergies. And, we’ve certainly gotten calls from people who are allergic to corn.”

Dr. Jacquelynne P. Corey, of the University of Chicago Medical Center, said that corn allergies are actually quite common.

“There are several things that are actually fairly common, and corn, being a very common part of the American diet, is very present in many foods that you wouldn’t necessarily even think about.”

Because there is no current cure for food allergies, Rosenstein said that allergy sufferers must be cautious consumers to avoid anaphylaxis, which most people associate with a swelling and closing of the throat.

“As with any food allergy there has to be very careful reading of labels, speaking to restaurant personnel, chefs at a restaurant and so on – taking very careful precautions to avoid problem ingredients,” she said.

Dr. Corey said that anaphylaxis manifests in other ways as well.

“It’s not as common, but many people with food allergies also have reactions in their nose or eyes, such as sneezing or itchy eyes, or chest tightness, such as an asthma attack,” she said.

I do not know if I am technically allergic to corn. I have an appointment with an allergist next week to find a definitive answer. I do know that I cannot eat corn without consequence. I do know that when I use products without corn, I feel better.

I also know that eliminating corn from my life will not be easy.