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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36 comments to The deal with corn

  • 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 [...]

  • Mollie Clark

    The baking powder I have says it is Non-GMO. I’m assuming it is still considered refined but I didn’t know if you had more recently come up with a better alternative since this post is a few years old.
    On a separate note, I am 16 and have been eating real food 98% of the time (100% during the 40 days of Lent) since February thanks to you. Your website is basically my “real food bible” and every single recipe I have tried I have fallen in love with! Thank you so much for such an AMAZING website. You have literally changed my life. Now if only I could convince my family (my two sisters and parents) to make the real food change…..

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