The deal with corn

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One of my favorite Food Rules from Michael Pollan’s latest book is “Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry.” Now how could anyone argue the fact that that rule just makes sense? I am trying to remember why I ever even thought it was okay to feed my kids (and my husband and myself) foods that contained things like maltodextrin, cellulose, ethoxylated diglycerides, and polydextrose. Oh yeah, I remember how that happened…because I wasn’t even reading the ingredients to know this random stuff was in there! At least it is never too late to change.

corn field

One of the most disturbing things about all of these food additives is that a great deal of them are derived from corn (and if it’s not corn, then it’s probably soybeans). Corn is perfectly fine to eat as a whole food or even a whole grain, but food scientists are tasked with coming up with other purposes for this overproduced, highly subsidized, cheap grain. According to the movie Food, Inc.  “30% of the U.S. land base is used to grow corn” since thanks to our government policy, farmers are paid with our tax dollars to overproduce corn. So scientists sit in their labs and use corn to come up with highly refined food additives that according to Pollan will “extend shelf life, make old food look fresher and more appetizing than it really is, and get you to eat more.” Is this making you hungry yet?

Just think about this quote the next time you consider eating from a fast food restaurant like McDonalds. According to Pollan:

“Corn is the sweetener in the soda. It’s in the corn-fed beef Big Mac patty, and in the high-fructose syrup in the bun, and in the secret sauce…The chicken nugget—including feed for the chicken, fillers, binders, coating, and dipping sauce—is all corn. The french fries are made from potatoes, but odds are they’re fried in corn oil, the source of 50 percent of their calories. Even the salads at McDonald’s are full of high-fructose corn syrup and thickeners made from corn.”

So if you typically eat foods out of boxes, bags, and packages you may want to browse this list of food additives and products that are all made from corn. Oh, and this is just the short list…there are many more that I didn’t even take the time to include.

  • Cellulose
  • Xylitol
  • Maltodextrin
  • Alpha Tocopherol
  • Calcium Stearate
  • Ethyl Lactate
  • Saccharin
  • White vinegar
  • Polydextrose
  • Ethylene
  • Sucrose
  • Gluten
  • Baking powder
  • Sorbital
  • Xanthan gum
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Fumaric acid
  • Vanilla extract
  • Citric acid
  • Ascorbic acid
  • Di-glycerides
  • Margarine
  • Fructose
  • Starch

“Whether or not any of these additives pose a proven hazard to your health, many of them haven’t been eaten by humans for very long, so they are best avoided” says Pollan. The moral of the story is that you should be able to understand and pronounce the names of the ingredients in the food that you put into your body! It is that simple.

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35 comments to The deal with corn

  • Wow! I really need to read this book!

    I noticed that about vanilla extract (that it contains corn syrup), but I can’t find any that doesn’t have it. I am going to find some beans and make my own, but there is only so much I can change at once :)

    Have you tried making mint extract? I want to make mint ice cream :) I wonder if I can just add the fresh leaves chopped up to a vanilla ice cream mix.

  • Great information! I always wonder what the crazy ingredients in certain foods are; it’s nice to be able to pinpoint all the corn derivatives. And avoid them like the plague they are!

  • J

    I don’t really understand the hate for corn. I appreciate that it’s in a wide number of our foods, both directly and in derived forms, but what exactly is the issue with that?

    Sure we can point to some derivatives and see some possible bad effects, but for many of the things listed what is the issue?

    > I am trying to remember why I ever even thought it was okay to feed my kids (and my husband and myself) foods that contained things like maltodextrin, cellulose, ethoxylated diglycerides, and polydextrose.

    What’s wrong with cellulose? It’s going to be in any plant matter you eat, and surely you would keep fruits and vegetables in your pantry.

    I applaud your desire to understand what’s in your food, but from what it sounds like you don’t actually understand what’s in your food. You’re just seeing words and reacting to them because they’re related to corn.

    > Whether or not any of these additives pose a proven hazard to your health, many of them haven’t been eaten by humans for very long, so they are best avoided

    This logic is mind boggling. Many of these additives have direct beneficial applications in the form of reduced caloric intake, vitamin activity, or reduction of food poisoning through preservation. We have reasons to use some of them, mind you not all of them, so just saying that because we haven’t been using them for a long time we shouldn’t is narrow-minded. Furthermore some of them we have been using.

    • It’s not just about it being bad for our bodies, but also the effect on the environment. And I don’t think it’s just the fact that these things are made of corn, but to turn them from the whole grain to these other substances requires a ton of other added chemicals that are not natural.

    • Everyone is certainly entitled to their own opinion and I always appreciate the opposing argument. In regards to cellulose, one thing I am striving to do is buy foods that have ingredients that I am familiar with, and that I would also use myself on a regular basis (cellulose does not fall into this category…no matter where else you may find it).
      The second quote you pulled out is actually a quote directly from Michael Pollan (who is the author of four New York Times bestsellers). He provides us with a lot of inspiration mainly because we find that his point of view just makes sense. Another point he makes is that our diets have changed drastically over the last 50 – 100 years compared to what humans had been eating since the dawn of agriculture. All of these food additives are fairly new creations and based on what we’ve learned from Pollan we believe it is best to stick with mostly whole foods (that are more a product of nature than a product of industry) that people have survived on for thousands and thousands of years.
      Lastly, I think that most people would agree that the optimal diet should be full of variety and when most of the processed foods end up being clever rearrangements of corn it just does not provide the variety I am seeking. I hope that helps to clear up my point of view for you. I definitely do not claim to be an expert…I am just a mom who has done hundreds of hours of research on all of this stuff.

    • Bethany

      The other issue not mentioned here with the corn is that when you start eating one food so much it is not healthy. I think most Americans would be hard pressed to name a food that they eat on a regular basis that does not contain corn in some capacity. When one eats a food to such exclusivity, there are many that develop allergies to that food. in this case it is usualy a ‘break out in hives’ reaction, but rather an internal one such as an inability to lose weight, mild congestion or cranky behavior. Our bodies were not designed to process all these chemicals and they do not know what to do with them. It does not matter that the corn was once a whole food, if its not anymore, your body will not recognize it as such.

    • Kerstin d

      Well, the fact that my kid has an insane allergy to corn, diagnosed before age 3, tells me that there IS reason to hate corn when it’s overdone the way it is now. If you saw the splotches, the swollen eyes, and the difficulty my baby has breathing I don’t think you’d see it as harmless.

  • Kristi Billingsley Toms

    Had no idea about the white vinegar. Would have never occurred to me…. Hmmm…. Always interesting!!

  • Fiona

    My organic vanilla extract from whole foods seems to be just vanilla bean, water, and organic alcohol. I like the vodka idea though!

  • brainnoise

    Love your blogs.. Being fully informed sometimes is about getting out of the box and realizing that foods sre meant to be real and natural. Saying that cellulose is a good additive to any product because it reduces caloric condsumption is more of that nutritionalism that Pollack talks about. I for one would rather eat real con from time to time instead of having it puffed and crushed a removed of all it’s natual goodness and then have other stuff added back in. It just makes no sense.
    The adversiting on your blog is the one by corn growers of america talking about the sweet’truth’ about high frcutose corn syrup. ugh!!

  • emu

    I see baking powder on the list, yet it is in some of the recipes on your blog (like the pancakes). Why is that? Is there no good substitution?

    • Wow you are very observant! We only recently discovered this about baking powder and unsuccessfully searched for an alternative. So on our day 100 post I will include a list of things we ate by accident that were against the rules and this will be included!

  • Amber

    To say that the above list of items are all “made from corn” is a faulty generalization of the facts because many of those items aren’t exclusive to corn.

    -Citrus acid is found in various vegetables and fruits (like citrus fruits), not just corn.

    -Xylitol is also made from hardwood trees or sugarcane, not just corn.

    -Margarine is also commonly made with sunflower oil, soybean oil.

    -White vinegar (a.k.a. distilled vinegar) can be made from any number of vinegars. Often it is distilled from malt vinegar (from malted barley); it isn’t always made from corn, though the popular Heinz product is.

    -Diglycerides most commonly come from canola oil or soybean oil, not corn.

    -Starch comes not only from corn but also from potatoes and wheat.

    -And gluten is extracted from flour; it isn’t made from corn.

    -Finally, to say that cellulose is “made from corn” is a laughable statement, since cellulose is an organic compound that is essentially plant fiber. It’s one of the most, if not the most, common organic compounds in existence.

    On an entirely different note: I’ve tried the whole-wheat banana pancakes from this blog, and they were delicious–definitely a keeper.

  • Joann

    what brand of vodka did you use? some are made from potatoes, and some from corn…not really into the alcohol thing so I am just wondering which one you went with.

  • stacey

    A few things. Gluten is almost always referring to wheat, rye, and barley. If it’s corn gluten, it’s labeled as such. And about baking powder, google it. you can make your own baking powder!

  • Melissa

    I was surprised to see vinegar and baking powder on the list also. I do not cook with white vinegar, but I do use it as a household cleaner. Not sure what to think about the baking powder. Guess I need to do more research.

  • Elle W

    Cellulose is actually just a fancy name for corn starch. I’m sure all of our grandmothers kept it in the pantry– how else would you thicken your gravy?? I actually do have some to use for the occasional gravy, cake, dust muffin pans etc. You use it in such small amounts (with the exception of french cakes), it’s not really a health issue. And a good source of non-soluble fiber.

    • Kaj

      Tons of people use plain old flour to thicken things. Or tapioca, for pies at least. So about half or so of grandmother’s used flour. Though it’s my opinion that corn starch is better for thickening. However, using flour means there’s one less ingredient to buy (which would factor into whether or not grandmothers used it, I’m sure).

  • Deanna

    I am new to this real food way of life, and I am overwhelmed on so many levels. But the one question I need to ask, is corn, (whether it be on the cob, can, or frozen in a bag), genetically engineered in any way?

  • Mallorie

    What about non-GMO sugar alcohols in moderate quantities? I’ve discovered that I low-carb diet works best for me when I want to lose weight and I’m still trying to eat only ‘real foods.’ However, when it comes to sugar, honey and maple syrup are too high carb. Thus, I’ve been on a search for a low-carb substitute and came across NOW Real Food’s Xylitol that is non-GMO. I know that technically, this does not qualify as ‘real food,’ but something has to give and I just need to know if this is acceptable in moderate quantities…and if not, what is (that’s low carb)?

  • Mallorie

    What about non-GMO sugar alcohols in moderate quantities? I’ve discovered that a low-carb diet works best for me when I want to lose weight; meanwhile, I’m still trying to eat only ‘real foods’ as well. However, when it comes to sugar, honey and maple syrup are just too high carb. Thus, I’ve been on a search for a low-carb substitute and I’ve come across NOW Real Food’s Xylitol that is non-GMO. I know that technically, this still does not qualify as ‘real food,’ but something has to give and I just need to know if this is acceptable in moderate quantities…and if not, what is (that’s low carb)? Thanks!

  • Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

    Hello Mallorie. Within the pledge, the only sweeteners we use are honey and maple syrup. Outside of pledge, you might want to give coconut palm sugar a try. It is a low glycemic alternative to other sugars. ~Amy

  • Michelle B

    I believe that Stevia extract (the natural version, in liquid drops) would be a low carb, low glycemic index option.

  • [...] products that contain conventional soy and corn (soy lecithin, high fructose corn syrup) since most are likely to contain genetically engineered [...]

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