Corn, also known as maize, is a cereal grain that originated in southern Mexico. Farmers in southern Mexico first cultivated corn about 10,000 years ago from a wild grass called teosinte. Teosinte kernels were much smaller than modern corn kernels. As farmers carefully chose which corn seeds they replanted, eventually corn evolved into the version we know today.
The kernels or seeds of corn are the edible parts. It can be eaten whole when it is very young and tender. But as it matures, the corncob or the part on which the kernels grow becomes harder and inedible. Corn comes in multiple colors, depending on where they have been grown.
Corn is literally in everything. You can’t go through a day without encountering types of corn in one form or another, whether it’s the hand soap in your bathroom, in plastic bottles and the hand cleanser itself, your morning bowl of cereal, the gas in your car made in part of ethanol, the aspirin you take for a headache, the crayons your kids draw with, or the roasted corn you serve for dinner.
In 2017, the United States produced 14.6 billion bushels of corn. Most of that produce went to places other than your dinner table, such as livestock feed and industrial products, but corn is still a staple of human consumption. And because we rely on corn for so many things other than eating, the diversity in corn grown in the U.S. has decreased. Large corn farmers are producing the corn needed for feed and fuel and food products like corn starch and corn syrup, which is not the corn we eat off the cob.
Corn oil is a popular cooking oil, though I don’t recommend using it. Corn oil contains some healthy components like vitamin E and phytosterols, but overall it’s not considered a healthy fat. That’s because it’s highly refined and high in inflammatory omega-6 fats that should be limited in a typical Western diet. High fructose corn syrup which is omnipresent in many packaged foods and should be avoided.
Another product made from corn is cornstarch. Cornstarch is used in the manufacturing of many cosmetic products and may also be applied topically to soothe skin rashes and irritation. Its products can be used to replace carcinogenic petroleum products which are major components of many cosmetic preparations. Many of the traditional skin creams contain petroleum jelly as a base material, which can often block pores and make skin conditions even worse.
There are six types of corn kernels: flint, flour, dent, pop, sweet, and waxy. Flour corn is mostly grown in the Andean region of South America and is used to make corn flour. Waxy corn is grown in China and has a texture that is more like glutinous rice. Technically, corn is a member of the whole grain family. And it can be very good for you. Corn is also naturally gluten-free, which makes it a good alternative to wheat for those who are avoiding gluten.
Because it is a whole grain, corn is a health-protective food. Numerous studies have tied whole grain consumption to a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. But of course, portion size matters. Eat portions that are in line with your body’s needs and activity level. For most adult women, that would mean one ear of corn, a half cup of oven-roasted kernels, or three cups of popcorn in one sitting.
Corn is rich in vitamins, essential minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. It is good for the heart, prevents constipation, helps to manage diabetes, and is good for your skin and corn contains a variety of B vitamins, as well as potassium. Potassium helps supports healthy blood pressure, heart function, muscle contractions, prevents muscle cramps, and helps maintain muscle mass.Corn also supplies about 10 times more vitamin A than other grains. In addition to protecting against cognitive decline, vitamin A supports the immune system, and helps to form the mucous membranes in your respiratory tract. Stronger membranes form better protective barriers to keep germs out of your bloodstream.
When it comes to nutrients in corn, color matters. Plant pigments are where the natural chemicals called phytonutrients are and these carry the antioxidants. That’s why white or yellow corn has fewer antioxidants than blue or purple corn. (These darker-colored types of corn come in chips or taco shells.) Authors of a 2019 Food Chemistry study discovered that extracts derived from purple corn contained high amounts of anthocyanins, phenolic acids and quercetin. All of them may contribute to purple corn’s potential in delivering anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic and anti-adipogenic properties.
Another health benefit of eating corn is that if provides insoluble fiber, which isn’t broken down and absorbed into the bloodstream. The fiber content in one cup of corn amounts to 18.4% of the daily recommended amount. Insoluble fiber stays in the GI tract, increases stool bulk, and helps to push waste through your system. This prevents constipation, reduces the risk of hemorrhoids, and may help lower colon cancer risk. Corn’s fiber may also help support weight management by increasing post-meal feelings of fullness.
One ear of sweet corn has:
- Calories: 90
- Protein: 3 grams
- Fat: 1 gram
- Carbohydrates: 19 grams
- Fiber: 1 gram
- Sugars: 5 grams
- Vitamin C: 3.6 milligrams (mg)
- It also contains trace minerals like selenium, which are difficult to find in most diets. Phosphorus is essential for regulating normal growth, bone health, and optimal kidney functioning. Magnesium is necessary for maintaining a normal heart rate and for increasing bone mineral density.
Corn contains flavonoids, which may aid in protecting the body against lung and oral cancers. Carotenoids such as beta-carotene, zeaxanthin and lutein may help maintain healthy skin and vision.
While it’s generally thought that heating food diminishes its nutrients, a 2002 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry showed that corn that underwent thermal processing at 115 degrees Fahrenheit for 25 minutes had:
- 44% higher antioxidant activity
- 550% higher ferulic acid (FA) content. FA is a plant chemical that may promote antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-aging abilities, help scavenge harmful free radicals and protect your liver, lungs and brain.
- 54% increased total phenolic quantity. Phenolics are antioxidants that help protect your body from oxidative damage, which may affect your DNA, lipids and proteins, and lower your risk for cancer and cardiovascular disease.
The authors also discovered that corn’s vitamin C content decreased by 25% after processing. Corn has a lot of natural sugar and carbs. so eat it in moderation to avoid risking health problems like insulin resistance.
According to a study published in the journal Food Science and Human Wellness in 2018, consumption of whole-grain corn is related to a decreased risk in the development of type 2 diabetes. According to the Journal of Medicinal Food, consumption of its kernels assists in the management of non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) and is effective against hypertension due to the presence of phenolic phytochemicals in whole corn. Phytochemicals can regulate the absorption and release of insulin in the body, which can reduce the chance of spikes and drops for people with diabetes and help them maintain a healthy lifestyle.
An Environmental Working Group (EWG) article highlighted that field corn grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered or modified. These substances pose a risk to your health no matter the circumstance. If possible, try growing organic corn at home or look for corn that hasn’t been sprayed with herbicides, pesticides or other chemicals, and hasn’t been grown from genetically modified varieties.
While there are more types of genetically modified corn (140 to be exact) than any other plant species, most fresh corn on the cob is not genetically modified. (The vast majority of corn grown in the US is used for animal feed and biofuels; a smaller percentage is processed to make various ingredients, such as cornstarch.) If you’re buying bagged frozen corn, you can avoid GMOs by looking for “USDA Certified Organic” on the label.
How to Cook
Corn is one of the most beloved cereal across the world and it is prepared in many ways. It is milled and made into flour, eaten off the cob in salads and soups, steamed, and roasted.
To grill fresh corn on the cob, pull down but don’t remove the outer husks, and pull off the silk. Fold the husks back into place and soak the corn in a tub of cold, salted water. Remove, shake off the excess water, and grill for 15-20 minutes, turning every five minutes or so. Drizzle with dairy-free pesto or seasoned tahini.
If you don’t have fresh corn on hand, you can also use frozen organic corn in a variety of ways. Thaw in the fridge and add to salads, soups, veggie chili, salsa, and stir-fries. Or toss thawed frozen corn with avocado oil, sea salt, and chipotle seasoning, and oven roast.
You can incorporate corn into sweet treats, like ice cream or pudding made with coconut milk, and sweet corn cakes. Buy organic kernels and pop it yourself on the stovetop in avocado oil. Serve it savory, with black pepper, turmeric, and sea salt, or sweet, drizzled with melted dark chocolate and cinnamon.