From buttery grilled street corn to savory creamed corn to fresh corn tortillas, corn is a staple food in dishes across North America. But with the increasing prevalence of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in today’s crops, more people are asking: Is corn healthy?
So, we’re going to break down the nutritional value and potential health benefits of this popular food. We’ll also clear the confusion about GMO corn and its risk to your health. But first, let’s cover some basic facts about corn.
Corn: An Overview
Corn (Zea mays) is a type of grass that produces an edible cereal grain. It’s thought to be the descendant of an ancient wild grass called teosinte. With origins in southern Mexico, the crop was first domesticated by the indigenous peoples of the region 9,000 years ago. Millennia of careful selection have resulted in what we now know as maize.
Corn is unique in that it is a vegetable, grain, and fruit all in one. It just depends on which part of the plant you eat. The whole corn on the cob is considered a vegetable, while the corn kernel is both a whole grain and a fruit.
That’s because a kernel of corn contains all three original grain parts: the endosperm, the germ, and the bran. Moreover, the kernel is the mature ovary of a female flower containing a seed. Which fits the botanical definition of “fruit” to a tee.
There are also four main types of corn:
- Sweet corn: Large, yellow and/or white, and especially sweet, this type is most popular for eating right off the cob.
- Flint corn: Named for its tough exterior, flint corn comes in a variety of colors that lend themselves nicely to fall decorations.
- Popcorn: This special variant of flint corn has kernels with extra-hard outer shells and soft, starchy centers holding a tiny bit of water.
- Field corn: Also known as dent corn, field corn features an indentation at the top of each kernel and is mainly used for animal feed and processed foods like cornmeal, taco shells, and tortilla chips.
Corn Nutrition Facts
Although corn is often dismissed as a sweet and starchy vegetable, it does contain beneficial nutrients. Below are the nutrition facts for 100 grams of boiled sweet yellow corn:
|Nutrient||Amount||% Daily Value|
|Total Carbohydrates||25.1 grams (g)||8%|
|Dietary Fiber||2.8 g||11%|
|Total Fat||1.3 g||2%|
|Vitamin C||6.2 milligrams (mg)||10%|
|Folate||46 micrograms (mcg)||11%|
Besides being low in fat, sodium, and cholesterol, sweet corn is a good source of fiber, vitamin C, folate, and thiamine (vitamin B1). There are also decent amounts of manganese, phosphorus, and potassium, which are all beneficial for bone health.
Note that the above serving of sweet corn contains 25 grams of carbohydrates and 3 grams of sugar. As such, it’s important to watch your portions if you’re on a diet that limits your carb intake.
In addition to essential vitamins and minerals, corn is also high in several antioxidant plant compounds.
Studies suggest corn has even higher antioxidant activity than grains like oats, wheat, and rice. Antioxidants can limit free radical damage, which has been linked to conditions like heart disease and cancer. Some examples found in corn are carotenoids, flavonoids, and phenolic acids.
Potential Health Benefits of Corn
The abundant nutrients and plant compounds in corn may offer a variety of health benefits.
Corn contains dietary fiber, the majority of which is insoluble. Insoluble fiber encourages regular bowel movements by adding bulk to your stools. This can help prevent digestive issues like constipation and hemorrhoids.
Popcorn in particular may also protect against diverticulitis. The condition occurs when small bulges that develop in the colon become inflamed or infected. Symptoms include abdominal pain, constipation, and fever. A large, 18-year study found a lower risk of diverticulitis in men who ate more popcorn.
Other studies have shown a link between diets high in fiber and whole grains, like corn, and lower rates of colon cancer.
Soluble and insoluble fiber are both known to promote satiety, which keeps you feeling fuller for longer.
Soluble fiber dissolves in water. When passing through your gut, it forms a gel-like substance that delays stomach emptying. With a full belly, you’re less likely to snack between meals, packing on empty calories that contribute to weight gain.
Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in liquid, but travels the digestive tract intact. Research has shown that insoluble cereal fiber may reduce appetite and lower food intake at the next meal.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are two carotenoids in corn with protective effects for your eyes.
These plant pigments that contribute to bold color of yellow corn are also present in your retina. Specifically concentrated in the macula area, they’re thought to shield the eyes from harmful blue light.
Studies further indicate the antioxidants may offer protection against or reduced risk of:
- Age-related macular degeneration
- Myopia (nearsightedness)
- Retinopathy of prematurity (abnormal blood vessel growth in premature babies)
Corn is a nutritious, plant-based food that can be part of a healthy diet. But there are some risks to consider when eating corn.
Much talk has been made of GMO corn—that is, corn that has been genetically modified to produce certain desirable traits. Most GMO corn is designed to be more resistant to insects or pesticides.
This type of corn is very popular in the United States. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in 2018, 92% of corn planted was GMO corn.
Its safety has been a concern for many in the food and nutrition industry. However, research on the health dangers of GMO corn has been conflicting, and data are lacking.
While studies have found adverse effects on liver and kidney health in animals, to date, no study has shown evidence of these harmful effects in humans.
Leading health and science organizations such as the National Research Council and the American Medical Association have released statements claiming the same.
In fact, a meta-analysis of over 6,000 studies, published in Scientific Reports in 2018, suggests GMO corn may be more beneficial healthwise than non-GMO varieties. Researchers found, in part, that GMO crops contain smaller amounts of harmful chemicals called mycotoxins.
Mycotoxins are toxins produced by certain types fungi that grow on food. Grains like corn are particularly vulnerable to this fungal contamination.
Eating large amounts of mycotoxin-infected corn may increase one’s risk for cancer and liver and kidney problems, as well as neural tube birth defects.
Many countries have regulations in place for mycotoxin levels in foods. Mycotoxin contamination is more prevalent in developing nations, which are less likely to have stringent food safety standards.
Corn additionally holds the substance phytic acid, also known as phytate. This phytochemical is known to block the body’s absorption of vitamins and minerals, and is present in all cereal grains.
Soaking or fermenting your corn can reduce its phytic acid content. But it’s also important to eat a varied diet with many nutrient sources to reduce the potentially damaging effects of grains such as corn.
So, Is Corn Healthy?
Corn is a food full of beneficial nutrients that can improve your health in many ways. Like all foods, it should be eaten in moderation as part of an overall balanced, healthy diet.
If you are concerned about GMO corn, stick to products containing the “Non-GMO Project Verified” logo. The nonprofit, third-party organization provides verification and labeling services for non-genetically modified foods and products.
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