Corn’s reputation as a food has gone through a rough time lately, and I’d like to redeem it a little bit. Corn is a grain with a rich history, and while modern uses of it should be frowned upon, history and science indicate that corn can have a valid place in a nature-based diet.
History: Corn was developed by ancient farmers in what is now southern Mexico about 7,000 years ago. It was domesticated from a grass named teosinte. After a couple thousand years of use, it became one of the most important crops for civilizations like the Olmecs, Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs in Central and South America. Through selective breeding for varieties that could withstand the cold, corn slowly made its way north by trade. Corn was grown in the Southwest as early as 4,000 years ago, but it wasn’t until about 1,000 years ago that North American Indians (Iroquois, Algonquin, and Caddo speakers to name a few) started growing corn further north and east in places like the Mississippi Delta, the Ohio River Valley, and the Northeastern Woodlands.
After European colonization of the Americas, corn was distributed across the globe and is now one of the world’s largest crops. The United States is currently the world’s largest producer (32% of the global production), and corn is the largest crop in the United States. Unfortunately, this massive mono crop requires vast amounts of petroleum inputs, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, land use, and irrigation. 
Statistical Breakdown (for the 630 billion pounds of corn produced in the US in 2012):
- 39.5% – used for animal feed
- 8.4% – exported to other countries
- 30.8% – used to produce ethanol
- 11.9% -used for human consumption
- 57% – of the total used for human consumption was in the form of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) or some other sweetener (approximately 43 billion pounds)
- 0.2% – was certified organic in 2008 (latest data)
- 88% – of all corn planted was genetically modified (GMO)  
Considerations: If the above statistics don’t provide enough reasons to be concerned about corn, I’ll provide a few more. Even if you’re able to find corn that’s not GMO (which is questionable for human health at best and can be catastrophic for the environment and small famers), the next difficultly will be finding corn meant for human consumption that’s in a heathy form. Since 57% of corn grown for consumption is used for HFCS or other sweeteners and another 27% is used for starch or alcohol, that leaves only 15% remaining as edible food. Most of that, however, is going to be found in sugary cereals or chips fried in processed oils. So, when corn is demonized as being horrible for human health, you can see why; most of it is extremely processed and incorporated into unhealthy foods.
For most of corn’s history, however, it’s been used as a nutritious supplement to healthy diets. Here’s how corn was traditionally processed and enjoyed for maximum benefits: Since corn is high in carbohydrates, some B-vitamins, and a few minerals but lacking in other nutrients, most cultures incorporated it into meals that were high in healthy fats and proteins (not with more sugars or processed oils). For example the Caddo speaking people and other North American Indians made a stew with corn (in the form of hominy) called sagamite that incorporated animal fat, dried meat, and sometimes fruit or herbs.
Most cultures also nixtamalized (an Aztec word) their corn before eating it, a process that involves boiling whole kernels with lye, ashes, or limestone. Nixtamalization kills the germ, transforms the protein structure, releases more of the b-vitamins, and makes the corn more palatable. After corn is nixtamalized it becomes hominy and can be ground into masa, the flour used for tortillas or tamales.
Like other seeds and grains, corn is also high in phytate, which is an anti-nutrient that blocks the absorption of minerals. Since corn is low in phytase (the enzyme that breaks phytate down), merely soaking the corn won’t break the phytate down. Many cultures, however, traditionally fermented corn and other grains to make them more palatable. This process inadvertently breaks down the phytate and makes corn that much more nutritious.
Nutrition Highlights: Properly prepared, corn is gluten-free, high in digestible carbohydrates (mostly glucose, the body’s preferred source of energy), and high in several B-vitamins and a number of minerals.
Key nutrients in a 50 g serving of masa flour:
- 38 g of carbohydrates and 4.6 g of protein
- Thiamin – 7% DV
- Vitamin B6 – 12% DV
- Calcium – 7% DV
- Magnesium – 11% DV
- Manganese – 11% DV
- Selenium – 10% DV
(Nutrition information is from the USDA National Nutrient Database)
The Take Away: Corn can be included as part of a healthy diet, but ideally it should be nixtamalized, so look for hominy or masa. The occasional fresh roasted corn on the cob isn’t going to negatively effect your health. Also, be sure to eat corn with meat or dairy and vegetables. Corn in the form of masa, tamales, or tortillas, should only occasionally supplement your overall nutritional needs rather than contribute a large portion of daily calories (especially avoid HFCS, corn chips, cereal, etc).
Mexican-style Masa Breakfast Porridge
Ingredients: 2 cups of water, 1/3 cup of masa flour, 2 oz of Mexican-style or cheddar cheese, and fresh salsa
Directions: Bring water to a boil then add the masa flour and stir immediately to prevent lumps. Reduce heat, then stir occasionally until the masa thickens into porridge. Once thickened, stir in cheese until melted, serve in two bowls, and top with a generous amount of fresh salsa!
Recommended Products: Bob Red Mill’s Gluten-Free Golden Masa
Originally posted 2013-05-08 01:46:11.