A lot of people are confused by corn: Is it a vegetable, or a carb? And is it actually good for you?
Technically, corn is a member of the whole grain family. And yes, it can be very good for you. Corn is also naturally gluten-free, which makes it a good alternative to wheat for those who must avoid gluten. Here are four more unique health benefits of corn.
Corns packs whole-grain perks
As a whole grain, corn is in a health-protective food category. Numerous studies have tied whole grain consumption to a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. (Yes, corn is linked to a lower risk of obesity despite its carb content as a grain). But of course, portion size matters. Try to choose portions that are in line with your body’s needs and activity level. For most adult women, that would mean one ear of corn, a half cup of oven-roasted kernels, or three cups of popcorn in one sitting.
It's full of key nutrients
Corn contains a variety of B vitamins, as well as potassium. The latter mineral supports healthy blood pressure, heart function, muscle contractions, prevents muscle cramps, and helps maintain muscle mass. Corn also supplies about 10 times more vitamin A than other grains. In addition to protecting against cognitive decline, vitamin A supports the immune system, and helps to form the mucous membranes in your respiratory tract. Stronger membranes form better protective barriers to keep germs out of your bloodstream.
Corn provides protective antioxidants
Lutein and zeaxanthin, corn’s main carotenoids (or pigments), help protect your eyes, and have been shown to reduce the risk of macular degeneration and cataracts. Meanwhile the antioxidant quercetin has been shown to combat both acute and chronic inflammation, and protect against neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's. Quercetin has also been linked to apoptosis, the self-destruct sequence the body uses to kill off worn out or dysfunctional cells.
Other antioxidants in blue and purple corn have been shown to be particularly good at fending off inflammation. They also guard against oxidative stress, an imbalance between the production of cell-damaging free radicals and the body's ability to counter their harmful effects.
And it's good for your digestion
Another health benefit of eating corn: you get a dose of insoluble fiber, which isn't broken down and absorbed into the bloodstream. Insoluble fiber stays in the GI tract, increases stool bulk, and helps to push waste through your system. This prevents constipation, reduces the risk of hemorrhoids, and may help lower colon cancer risk. Corn’s fiber may also help support weight management by increasing post-meal feelings of fullness.
A few more things to know…
While there are more types of genetically modified corn (140 to be exact) than any other plant species, most fresh corn on the cob is not genetically modified. (The vast majority of corn grown in the US is used for animal feed and biofuels; a smaller percentage is processed to make various ingredients, such as cornstarch.) If you’re buying bagged frozen corn, you can avoid GMOs by looking for "USDA Certified Organic" on the label.
Also, while whole corn is low in fat (1 gram per ear) and sugar (3 grams per ear), I don’t recommend consuming high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) or corn oil. HFCS has been tied to an abnormal increase in body fat, especially belly fat, as well as blood fats called triglycerides. And corn oil is high in omega-6 fatty acids, which have been linked to pro-inflammation, especially when not properly balanced by omega-3s.
How to add corn to your diet
To grill fresh corn on the cob, pull down but don’t remove the outer husks, and pull off the silk. Fold the husks back into place and soak the corn in a tub of cold, salted water. Remove, shake off the excess water, and grill for 15-20 minutes, turning every five minutes or so. Drizzle with dairy-free pesto or seasoned tahini.
If you don’t have fresh corn on hand, you can also use frozen organic corn in a variety of ways. Thaw in the fridge and add to salads, soups, veggie chili, salsa, and stir-fries. Or toss thawed frozen corn with avocado oil, sea salt, and chipotle seasoning, and oven roast.
You can even incorporate corn into sweet treats, like ice cream or pudding made with coconut milk, and sweet corn cakes. Remember that popcorn counts too. Buy organic kernels and pop it yourself on the stovetop in avocado oil. Serve it savory, with black pepper, turmeric, and sea salt, or sweet, drizzled with melted dark chocolate and cinnamon.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a nutrition consultant for the New York Yankees.
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