Whether it was a tortilla, chip, bread, soda, popcorn, oil, or cereal, chances are you ate something with corn in it recently.
From salads to soups and corn tortillas, this food easily finds its way into the kitchen — but is it actually good for you?
Here, Able walks you through everything you need to know about corn — from what it is, to what it comprises, to health benefits and risks — to help you understand this food as part of your larger diet.
Corn is one of the most abundant and widely consumed crops in the United States. However, corn may not be the healthiest grain choice. This article will examine the potential downsides of corn consumption and explain our view of corn in the diet.
Many people assume that corn is naturally gluten-free. However, research has shown that corn contains proteins that may trigger reactions in those sensitive to gluten. In a 2005 study published in the journal Gut, corn gluten administered to patients with celiac disease induced abnormal immune responses in some participants.
While the gluten in corn may be different from the gluten in wheat, barley, and rye, it can still provoke inflammation in those with gluten sensitivity. Therefore, corn is not considered gluten-free from a functional medicine perspective.
According to the USDA, 92% of corn acreage planted in the U.S. is genetically engineered. The two main GMO corn traits are herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. Functional medicine practitioners caution against the consumption of GMO foods due to potential risks such as:
- Altered gastrointestinal function
- Disruption of healthy gut bacteria
- Increased toxin exposure
- Chronic inflammation
Animal studies have linked consumption of GMO corn to toxicity in organ systems. While more research is needed, the functional medicine view recommends avoiding GMO corn due to the possible effects on health.
Many processed foods and beverages contain high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as a sweetener. HFCS is made from genetically engineered corn that has been highly refined and processed. The functional medicine perspective considers HFCS a dangerous ingredient for several reasons:
- HFCS spikes blood sugar levels unnaturally high
- HFCS places a heavy toxic load on the liver
- Overconsumption of HFCS can lead to insulin resistance
- HFCS consumption is linked to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease
Functional medicine clinicians advise strictly limiting intake of foods containing HFCS and other refined corn sweeteners.
Corn contains compounds called antinutrients that can interfere with nutrient absorption. Phytic acid in corn binds to minerals like iron, zinc, and calcium and prevents the body from utilizing them properly. This can result in nutritional deficiencies over time.
Corn also contains lectins, which are proteins that may cause leaky gut syndrome when consumed in high amounts. Leaky gut is associated with inflammation, autoimmunity, allergies, and other chronic health conditions.
Soaking, sprouting, and fermenting corn can help reduce some of these antinutrients. However, regular consumption of untreated corn may result in negative effects in sensitive individuals, as per the functional medicine view.
Corn kernels contain an outer layer of cellulose that the human digestive system cannot break down properly. When corn is consumed, these outer hulls of the kernels pass through the digestive tract intact. The indigestible cellulose can potentially cause or exacerbate common digestive issues like bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.
The functional medicine take is that corn is not optimally digestible food for humans. The digestive tract is not designed to fully break down and absorb many components in corn. This makes corn a common food sensitivity for some people.
Corn oil is very high in omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. While omega-6s are essential fats, most modern diets contain an overabundance of omega-6s compared to omega-3s. This imbalance can fuel systemic inflammation and contribute to chronic diseases.
From a functional medicine lens, overconsumption of corn oil and other high omega-6 oils can be detrimental. Balancing omega-6 fats with omega-3 rich foods is important for controlling inflammation and optimizing health.
Corn is very susceptible to mold growth and mycotoxin development both in the field and during storage. Mycotoxins are toxic compounds produced by molds that can cause significant health issues when consumed. Some potential effects include:
- Hormonal imbalances
- Liver damage
- Kidney toxicity
- Cancer development
- Suppressed immune function
We recommend taking precautions to avoid moldy corn products and having mycotoxin levels tested if exposure is a concern.
Given the many potential health impacts of corn detailed above, functional medicine clinicians generally recommend limiting corn consumption as part of an anti-inflammatory, whole foods diet. Some specific tips include:
- Avoiding GMO corn
- Staying away from processed foods with HFCS and other corn sweeteners
- Choosing organic corn products when possible to reduce pesticide/herbicide residue
- Soaking or sprouting corn before eating to reduce antinutrients
- Balancing corn with other less starchy vegetables
Each person may react differently to corn depending on individual tolerances and health status. The functional medicine approach involves tailoring dietary recommendations to your unique needs.
While corn is a staple crop in the American food system, it may present some drawbacks from a functional perspective. GMO corn, HFCS, antinutrients, omega-6s, and potential for mold contamination are some concerns. Following a functional medicine diet entails minimizing intake of corn and emphasizing nutrient-dense whole foods instead.
However, each individual may tolerate corn differently. Working with a knowledgeable functional medicine practitioner can help determine if corn is a problematic food for your specific health situation.
Able is here to help you every step of the way when it comes to dietary plans, nutrient tracking, and self-care to work towards a well-balanced lifestyle that makes you feel good.
Gut. 2005; 54:769-774
J Med Food. 2007 Nov;10(4):675-84.
Int J Biol Sci. 2009; 5(7):706-726.