Is Corn Bad For You? As a nutrition coach, I can’t count how many times this question has been posed to me.
When it comes to health, fitness, and nutrition, it seems like we like to deal in extremes—all or nothing, good or bad. We have a tendency to view things in black and white. And we have a yearning to seek simple, absolute answers to complex, situational questions. But, we’re not computers; we’re humans. We don’t run on a binary system of ones and zeros—on or off.
There are countless examples of this…This food is “good”; that food is “bad.” Everyone should eat this food. You should “never” eat this. Didn’t your mother tell you to “never say never”?
One such example of a food getting tagged with a figurative scarlet letter is corn. That is, the common conception is that corn is, was, and always will be evil. But, is corn bad for you?
Is Corn Bad For You? The Background
Let’s take a step back to see if we can lay the groundwork for the negatives associated with the question of “Is Corn Bad For You?”. I suppose corn has gotten a bad rap for several reasons. I’ll let you be the judge as to the validity and applicability of them.
• Corn provides predominantly carbohydrates, which specific diets heavily restrict (e.g., ketogenic, low-carb).
• A relatively large percentage of the carbs in corn are starch, and some folks believe it’s best to avoid starchy carbs. Interestingly, a medium ear of sweet corn contains 32% fewer total carbs and 84% less sugar than a medium apple. What’s more, corn contains a special type of starch called resistant starch, which we’ll discuss more below.
• Corn, known as the “mother grain” of Americans, is the number one crop grown in the United States. Although the topic of genetically engineered food (i.e., GMOs) is both complex and controversial, it’s also worth pointing out that around 90% of the corn grown in the US is genetically engineered.1
• Having said that, only a very, very small percentage of commercially available sweet corn is genetically modified. GM corn, commonly referred to as “field corn,” is used for animal feed and biofuels. It’s also a source for ingredients like corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), corn starch, corn oil, maltodextrin, alcohol, and others.
• GM status aside, highly refined corn-derived ingredients like HFCS and corn oil have been the subject of intense scrutiny. Worse, they’ve been implicated as major players in the obesity epidemic and myriad health issues. While these topics are complex and it’s not possible to point a finger at a single food or ingredient, the fact is the overwhelming majority of “foods” made with corn-derived ingredients are heavily processed, highly refined, and provide very little in terms of nutritional value.
Is Corn Bad For You? The Benefits of Whole Sweet Corn
With a little background on the “bad” and “ugly” of corn, let’s hone in on the “good.” You might be surprised by the nutrition and potential health benefits whole-grain sweet corn can provide as part of an overall balanced diet.2
• Corn also contains a variety of phytonutrients, such as phytosterols. Phytonutrients are powerful antioxidants, which are naturally present in plants, that provide numerous health benefits and protect against various health issues. Phytosterols have many health benefits, including a cholesterol-lowering effect.
• Among the carotenoids in corn are lutein and zeaxanthin, which play a crucial role in eye health and vision (protecting our eyes from dangerous high-energy blue light), heart health, and cognitive function.
• As mentioned above, some of the starch found in corn is a special form called resistant starch (RS). RS is unique in that it escapes digestion and has various health benefits. For instance, research has shown that RS reduces hunger, increases satiety, reduces food intake, increases fat burning, decreases fat storage, improves insulin sensitivity, lowers cholesterol, and improves the makeup of gut bacteria. Even more, some have even hyped RS as a “weight loss wonder food.”3
Boost Your Healthy Gut Formula
• One medium ear of sweet corn contains 2.8 grams of fiber. While it’s a fairly modest amount, most people don’t consume nearly enough fiber, which is a nutrition all-star. Higher intakes of fiber reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers and have been associated with lower body weight. Of course, fiber is synonymous with digestive health, as it increases bulk and frequency and reduces transit time.4
• According the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which tests produce annually for pesticide contamination, avocados and corn are the “cleanest” produce. Only 1% of samples show detectable pesticides. Remember, little, if any, sweet corn found in the produce section of the supermarket is GM. Yet, because GM produce is not labeled, if you are at all concerned, consider choosing organic sweet corn.
Taken together, sweet corn is a far, far cry from highly refined corn-derived ingredients common in heavily processed foods. Quite the contrary. Whole-grain corn is bountiful in nutrients and phytochemicals, which possess various potential health benefits. Along those lines, delicious sweet corn—organic, when possible—can indeed be incorporated as part of an overall healthy diet.
So next time you are asked, “Is Corn Bad For You?”, you know the truth!