Popcorn, corn on the cob, polenta, tortilla, corn chips, and corn meal are just some of the commonly eaten varieties of corn. For thousands of years, it has been a staple ingredient in most parts of the world, especially in the South, Central, and North America. You have probably consumed a lot of corn in different varieties just like an average American. But, do you have any idea about the nutritional value of corn?
Before we discuss anything further, let us try to get to know more about corn. Corn is classified as a grain and is typically associated with whole grains like wheat, oats, and barley. It was first domesticated in Mesoamerica over 8,000 years ago and was originally described as maiz, which is a Spanish word. That is probably why in most parts of the world, corn is referred to as maize.
Different Types of Corn
Most people would immediately associate the color yellow to corn. When you think about corn, you probably would conjure an image of yellow grains on a cob and that all corns are the same. Actually, they are not.
There are three basic types of corn and each of them differ in terms of their distinguishing traits and uses.
1. Dent Corn
Also known as field corn or yellow dent corn, this type of corn is the most widely grown corn in the United States. It is mainly used for livestock feeds, but it can also be used in some food products for humans. It got the name dent corn because it contains a mix of hard and soft starches and they become indented once the corn is dried.
Dent corn is the variety preferred in food manufacturing as it is the base ingredient for cornmeal flour, corn chips, tortillas, and taco shells. Because of its high starch content, it is also used to make fructose, which is used as a sweetener in processed foods and soft drinks.
2. Flint Corn
This one is also similar to dent corn, but it is also known as ornamental corn or Indian corn. It can be distinguished easily because it has a wide range of colors. It has a hard outer shell or layer which protects the soft endosperm that is why it is likened to being hard as flint.
Flint corn is grown mostly in Central and South America and is used for decoration around harvest time and Thanksgiving. But, it can also be eaten as it is preferred for making hominy which is a staple food in the US since pre-Columbian times.
3. Sweet Corn
This is the type of corn, which is either eaten on the cob or canned and frozen for future consumption. As the name implies, sweet corn is extra sweet because it contains more natural sugars than the other types of corn.
Sweet corn is almost all soft starch and can never be used to make popcorn as it will never pop. It is also best picked and eaten while the ears of the corn are in the immature milk stage and the kernels are still tender, unlike other types of corn which are picked when the kernels are dry and mature.
If you love eating corn in all its forms, you will be happy to know that aside from its great taste, corn also has a lot of health benefits due to its nutritional content.
Corn contains varying amounts of water, depending on the type, but it is also mainly composed of carbohydrates like all cereal grains. It also has small amounts of protein and fat.
The main type of carbs that can be found in corn is starch, making up 28 to 80% of its dry weight. It also contains a small amount of sugar, which is about 1 to 3%, except for sweet corn which has a higher content. Sweet corn has a lower starch with only about 28%, but a higher sugar content at 18% with most of which are sucrose.
Even though sweet corn has a higher sugar content, it is not a high-glycemic food which means that it will not cause an unhealthy spike in blood sugar. In fact, it only ranks low or medium on the glycemic index.
Corn also has a fair amount of fiber containing 42% of the adequate daily intake for men and 64% of the adequate daily intake for women.
The main types of fiber that can be found in corn are insoluble fibers such as hemicellulose, cellulose, and lignin. It should be noted though that the fiber content of different types of corn varies, but is generally around 9 to 15%.
To give you a better idea, a medium bag of popcorn which is about 112 grams contains approximately 16 grams of fiber.
The protein content of corn ranges from 10 to 15%, depending on the corn variety which can be considered as a decent amount of low-quality protein. The most abundant type of proteins found in corn is known as zeins which make up for 44 to 79% of its total protein content.
Although, the protein quality of zeins is quite poor because they lack some essential amino acids, mainly lysine and tryptophan.
Corn is a low-fat food with a fat content ranging only from 5 to 6%. But, corn germ, which is a side product of corn milling is rich in fat. It is used to make corn oil, which is commonly used for cooking.
Corn oil contains substantial amount of vitamin E, ubiquinone, and phytosterols, which increase its shelf life and make it effective for lowering cholesterol levels. Refined corn oil is made up of linoleic acid, which is a polyunsaturated fatty acid. Monounsaturated and saturated fats make up the rest.
Whole corn is relatively low in fat, but there are still a number of concerns with refined seed oils such as corn oil. Sine it is sometimes processed from corn germ, corn oil is not highly recommended.
Vitamins and Minerals
Again, depending on the type, corn may contain a fair amount of several vitamins and minerals.
Popcorn, which is a type of flint corn, is rich in minerals such as manganese, phosphorous, magnesium, zinc, and copper.
Sweet corn, on the other hand, is richer in vitamins such as pantothenic acid, folate, vitamin B6, niacin, and potassium.
Corn is a unique phytonutrient-rich food which has antioxidant benefits. In fact, compared to other common cereal grains, corn contains higher amounts of antioxidants. It contains anthocyanins, beta-carotene, caffeic acid, coumaric acid, Ferulic acid, lutein, syringic acid, vanillic acid, protocatechuic acid, and zeaxanthin.
Different varieties of corn have different combinations of antioxidants. For instance, yellow corn has more carotenoids as well as high concentrations of lutein and zeaxanthin. Purple corn is rich in protocatechuic acid, which has been linked to strong antioxidant variety, while blue corn is unique in its anthocyanin content.
When you eat a large ear of corn, you basically get the following:
- 123 calories
- 5 grams of protein
- 2 grams of fat
- 4 grams of fiber
- 27 grams of carbohydrates
- 1 milligram of thiamine
- 1 milligram of vitamin B6
- 5 milligrams of folate
- 3 milligrams of vitamin C
- 158 milligrams of potassium
- 3 milligrams of magnesium
- 2 milligrams of phosphorus
Major Health Benefits of Corn
Eating whole grain and non-GMO corn regularly can have a number of health benefits for you. Some of these benefits are discussed below:
Promotes Eye Health
Corn is a good source of carotenoids such as lutein and zeaxanthin that is why it can significantly contribute to eye health maintenance. Dietary intake of antioxidants, specifically carotenoids, can benefit your eyes.
These carotenoids are also commonly known as macular pigments that are found in the human retina. The retina is the inner surface of the eyes that are light-sensitive. Lutein and zeaxanthin protect against oxidative damage caused by high energy blue wavelengths of light. High levels of these carotenoids are also believed to help reduce the risk of macular degeneration and cataracts.
Macular degeneration and cataracts are two of the world’s most common visual impairments. They are also considered as major causes of blindness. While they are commonly caused by infections an old age, nutrition can also play a significant role.
Several studies support this and even the American Optometric Association reports that lutein and zeaxanthin can help protect you from developing chronic eye diseases. That is why eating food rich in these nutrients, like corn, is strongly recommended.
Improves Blood Pressure
More potassium in your diet can improve and help lower down your blood pressure. If you eat a cup of yellow corn, you will get 392 milligrams of potassium or if you prefer a cup of white corn, you will get more with 416 milligrams. Although it is far from the American Heart Association’s recommendation of 4,700 milligrams a day, eating corn can help you meet your daily needs.
Corn contains a lot of fiber that when you eat a one cup serving of yellow corn, you will consume 3.9 grams of fiber. If you eat a one cup serving of white corn, you will get 4.2 grams of fiber. Since most of the fiber found in corn is insoluble fiber, it can add bulk to your stool and may help prevent constipation. Aside from that, corn can also help your body get rid of toxins faster.
Prevents Diverticular Disease
A diverticular disease or diverticulosis is a condition which is characterized by pouches in the walls of the colon. People who have diverticulosis often have symptoms such as cramps, flatulence, bloating, and sometimes even bleeding and infection.
There was an observational study which showed that consumption of popcorn was found to be effective and protective. Men who ate the most popcorn were 28% less likely to develop diverticular disease compared to those who have the lowest intake of corn. However, further studies are needed to support this claim and confirm these results.
Rich in Antioxidants
Aside from being considered as a grain, corn is also sometimes considered as a vegetable, especially when eaten on the cob. And just like most vegetables, corn can also help fight against free radicals that damage cells. It can also help decrease your risk of heart disease, cancer, and other diseases.
Some of the antioxidants found in corn include carotenoids, vitamin C, and vitamin E. It is even believed that corn is a better source of antioxidants compared to rice, wheat, or oats.
Some Cons of Eating Corn
It is undeniable that corn has a lot of health benefits, but it is also important to note that there are also some disadvantages of eating corn.
1. The first major drawback is when the corn is genetically modified. In the United States, corn is the number one grown crop and is also the second most genetically modified ingredient in the world.
It can be negative because a genetically modified organism can pose significant risks such as allergic reactions and can also lower resistance to antibiotics. GMOs, as the name implies, are organisms that have been altered genetically. So when we talk about a GMO corn, we are talking about something that has been modified in a laboratory before it was planted.
The purpose of GMOs is for the food, specifically crops, to have their own defense mechanism against elements that can harm them. However, because of alterations, they can cause not only allergic reactions, but also more serious conditions and medical cases such as tumors and even earlier death.
2. The second one is when corn is used to make high fructose corn syrup. Regardless of what food manufacturers say, high fructose syrup is not natural. As such, it may contain harmful elements and is actually far from being healthy.
High fructose corn syrup is a liquid sweetener that is considered as an alternative to sucrose or the common table sugar. It is completely man-made and highly processed that it can bring different effects on the body. It can also be a cause of obesity, various diseases, and increase the risk of poor health.
3. Corn is also not recommended when it is found in other forms of processed foods. To be sure, always read the entire food label when buying food products to check if the product is safe for your standards. Usually, GMO corn is used to make other ingredients that manufacturers add to packaged and processed foods. If you read anything that you cannot pronounce, it is safe to stay away from that food product.
4. Lastly, if you have a sensitive digestive system, it is possible for corn to aggravate it. Even though corn is technically not a grain and is actually gluten-free, it can still cause stomach aches especially if you have other common food allergies.
A possible reason for this is because of corn’s fiber content and its ability to ferment in the gut. Corn also contains cellulose, which is a type of fiber that we cannot break down easily as we lack the necessary enzyme to fully digest it. That is why, some people experience discomfort when eating food high in fiber.
Tips for Preparing and Serving Corn
To fully maximize the health benefits of corn, there are some tips that you can consider when preparing food which contain corn.
Corn can be cooked either with or without the husk, depending on what you intend to cook. One of the most nutrient-rich way of cooking corn is quick steaming. It involves three basic cooking guidelines for better nutrient retention. First, there should be minimal heat exposure. Second is that there should be minimal cooking duration. Finally, it should have minimal contact with cooking liquid.
You can do quick steam by filling the bottom of a steamer with about two inches of water and then bring it to a rapid boil. Steam corn for only five minutes so as not to overcook the corn. Also, avoid adding salt as it may lose its natural flavor. If you must, only add a little. For other additional flavor, you can season it with a little organic butter, olive oil, or flaxseed oil.
You can also add corn in side dishes or in a cold salad. Just mix up some greens, quinoa, tomatoes, green peppers, kidney beans, and some cooked corn kernels for a salad with Incan influence.
Make your pizza healthier by using polenta, which is a type of cornmeal, as a pizza crust. You can also add corn kernels to guacamole or soup for variety and extra flavor and texture.
The nutritional value of corn cannot be underestimated as it is a rich source of vitamins and minerals. It is also a good source of antioxidants, specifically carotenoids that promote eye health. Fortunately, corn can be served and eaten in a wide variety of ways so you can both enjoy its health benefits as well as its great taste. Just make sure that you stick to the organic and non-GMO corn types to ensure that you will get sufficient vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber that your body needs.