When I think of corn, some of the first things that pop into my head are summer barbecues, tortilla chips and guacamole and an overindulgent night at the movies. Up until a few years ago I never would’ve associated this beloved grain with toxicity, agricultural scandal and diabetes. Sadly, it turns out that it’s linked to all three. So before you reach for that extra-large bag of corn chips because it’s gluten free and therefore the better option, crunch on some of the info below.
When I started to learn about the difference between food sensitivities and food allergies, I became increasingly aware of how certain foods made me feel. Could it be that my runny nose or constant bloating weren’t issues I just had to “deal with” – but were in fact linked to an overconsumption of certain foods? Whereas allergies produce an immunological reaction such as anaphylaxis, sensitivities are more likely to come and go over time, with varying degrees of severity.
How a food is produced as well as your current health status are two major influences on whether or not your body will react to its consumption. Corn is an item that’s consistently labeled a common food allergen. Up there with it are cow’s milk, eggs, soy, wheat and cane sugar; not surprisingly, all things that are produced en masse to affordably feed the world’s ever-booming population. Over time, the way a product is produced can have an affect on how our bodies break it down (or in some cases, don’t). Growing conditions, the health of the soil, pesticide and herbicide use, hormone injections and perhaps the biggest concern of late – genetic modification – have all played a role in making the food that our ancestors farmed and consumed very different from what we generally put in our mouths today.
The problem with GMOs
“Genetic modification” refers to the process of cross breeding different species with the desired result of developing an end-product with specific characteristics such as resistance to pests, a greater tolerance for chemical use, larger yield or adaptation to certain growing environments. While it may have seemed like a good idea from the onset, playing god when it comes to our food carries a huge weight. Not only is it extremely unpredictable, but very little scientific research has been done on the potential short- and long-term effects of the consumption of these foods. What our bodies used to recognize as corn and would break down accordingly could be very different from what they are capable of now.
Perhaps one of the most notorious names in the world of GMOs is Monsanto. Developers of Round Up Ready seeds – which are genetically engineered to be resistant to their herbicide Round Up – Monsanto have a patent on their seeds and requires farmers who use them to sign an agreement that stipulates they will purchase new seed from the company each year, rather than using any product from the plants’ reproduction. This level of control results in both high profits for Monsanto, and an increasing number of lawsuits over things such as accidental spread of Round Up Ready from one field to another and the re-use of seeds from previous years’ crop yields without Monsanto’s permission.
Type 2 diabetes, the insulin-resistant variety, is on the rise. Strongly linked to inactivity and obesity, it’s becoming more prevalent in a much younger demographic. In a study conducted by the University of Southern California and the University of Oxford published in the journal Global Public Health, a link was made between the large amounts of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) and Type 2 Diabetes. According to the study, countries that used HFCS had a 20% higher incidence of the disease than countries that didn’t. This association was shown to occur independent of total sugar intake and obesity levels.
The United States came out on top in terms of the highest per capita consumption of HFCS, at a rate of 25 kilograms per year, followed by Hungary, with an annual rate of 16 kilograms per year. Countries with higher usage of HFSC had an average prevalence of 8%, whereas the ones that did not had a rate of 6.7%. The link between HFCS and Type 2 Diabetes is likely a result of the higher amounts of fructose in foods and beverages made with HFCS. The article also made mention of a growing body of evidence that shows a difference in the way the body metabolizes fructose and glucose. Fructose metabolism occurs mostly in the liver, where it may be more easily converted to fat. This is likely due to the fact that our liver can’t keep up with processing the fructose from HFCS at the rate which people are consuming it.
What can you do?
Corn is an ingredient that’s found in everything from soda in the form of HFCS to sauces (corn starch is a commonly used thickener) to over-the-counter medication. If you suspect you could have a corn sensitivity, start by becoming more label-savvy and try to remove all suspect foods from your diet.
Food labeling laws differ from country to country, so get familiar with yours by doing a simple Web search. Take the time to find out where your food comes from; shop at local farmers’ markets, buy organic and GMO-free, and avoid things that have been overly processed. As with most things food and health related, knowledge is power – so take the time to educate yourself, act with your dollar and think twice before you get that refill of buttery popcorn.