What’s hiding in your corn?
If you’ve seen the documentary King Corn, or other documentaries about our food supply, you are probably already a little suspicious of corn. I personally am very allergic to most varieties of corn except for blue, which people think is funny since I lived in Iowa for almost a decade. I had heard that corn contains mold (similar to the issue with peanuts) but had never taken the time to research it until someone who had gone gluten-free asked me if all the corn in gluten-free foods was worse for you (not to mention more expensive) than just eating gluten. Great question! I read through a few studies and then found an absolutely amazing research report on the subject by Charles M. Benbrook, PhD from the Organic Center. Below is what hit me in my own research from several sources but the bulk of the interesting stuff is from Dr. Benbrook’s review. If you have time, I highly recommend reading the whole report!
- Worldwide, pretty much all corn grown and then stored (vs. grown and then eaten fresh off the cob) contains mold. However, the main concern is not the mold itself, but the presence of mycotoxins, which are toxins produced by mold.
- Wheat, rice, peanuts, spoiled produce (especially apples used in apple juice), and milk and meat (because the animals are fed moldy corn) are also significant contributors of mycotoxins in our daily diets.
- The key thing in all of this is looking at the type of mycotoxin found in the different foods. Corn and peanuts contain the highest concentrations of Aflatoxin B, which is considered by many scientists to literally be “the most potent carcinogen known to man” because of its ability to cause intense liver damage and gene mutation. This makes the mold in corn and peanuts a much higher priority to avoid than the mold in wheat or rice, though they all contain mold.
- Aflatoxin is extremely stable and lasts for years. Levels do decline slightly at temperatures above boiling temperatures.
- The biggest factor in determining the quantity of aflatoxin present in a food is how wet the growing season was when the grain was budding. So, it’s virtually impossible to trace through the food supply. Drought stress (like the drought we had last year in the US) also causes an “aflatoxin bloom” when the mold produces more aflatoxin than normal. So it’s safe to say that we should try to avoid all US grown corn and corn-fed animal products from last year. Which again, is really hard to trace when you’re shopping at the store!
- Studies comparing organic vs. commercial levels of aflatoxin in corn and other foods were inconclusive. Some showed more in organic, some less, some the same, mostly depending on when and where the food was grown. Monsanto and others have tried to propagate the idea that organic and non-GMO grains are a higher risk for aflatoxin because fungicides are not used. However, when looking at the food as a whole, a person is much better able to effectively detoxify and prevent harm from aflatoxin exposure when it is not combined in the same mouthful with pesticides, fungicides, and foreign genetics.
- On a side note, in 2011, 10% of the corn in our food supply was genetically modified. Sweet corn was the first “vegetable” (because un-sweet corn is a grain, not a vegetable) that Monsanto modified for our food supply.
- Organic farms also tend to be smaller operations, and they tend to have more “soil harmony” including use of compost tea which inoculates plants with healthier forms of bacteria and non-pathogenic molds that displace molds that produce aflatoxin.
- Mold also produces higher levels of aflatoxin when exposed to excessive levels of nitrogen, such as those found in commercial fertilizers.
- I did not find anything saying mold was more or less on blue corn vs. white and yellow. However, it more likely contains less aflatoxin since it is open pollinated rather than hybridized so would have stronger resistance.
- Several studies examined mycotoxin content exposure to our children and found that there is a serious concern for kids who eat a lot of wheat – including the wheat cereals for babies which contained some of the highest levels of mycotoxin of ALL foods studied – and for pregnant or nursing mothers who eat bread, breakfast cereals, cake, and liver pate from corn-fed animals (because the aflatoxin the animals are exposed to is concentrated in the liver). Mycotoxins pass the placental barrier and are more concentrated in human breast milk than in milk from cows. That’s a hard one for this nursing mother to read without wanting to cry!
- Stress, disease, hunger, and inadequate protein intake make it more likely that aflatoxins will cause damage in the people eating them. This makes mold exposure in developing countries a major global issue because some communities have to choose between moldy grain or no grain at all.
- The USDA is sickeningly lenient when it comes to mycotoxin levels in our food supply. On all types of mycotoxin (there are about 10 different ones that we keep track of) we have the highest allowed levels of any other nation that is developed enough to monitor this. We allow 10 times more aflatoxin (the really bad one) than Europe and 2 times more than Japan in corn used for human consumption. In corn used for animal consumption, we allow 15 times more aflatoxin than Europe and Japan. For other mycotoxins such as those found in wheat, the US gives “guidelines” for levels but does not necessarily enforce them.
Now, before you turn off your computer and go hide in your closet, I wanted to share some practical points for navigating through this issue.
- As much as possible, try to have your diet be protein (especially animal protein from grassfed animals or wildcaught seafood, or for vegetarians – minimally processed proteins such as whole raw nuts or dry beans) and fresh produce. The more a food is processed, the more likely there will be items that contain aflatoxin.
- When you do need to cook with corn products (as in tasty Mexican food!), try to buy organic or blue corn varieties.
- If you regularly eat gluten-free pasta, I would suggest using zucchini cut into noodle-shape a mandolin as a first option or use the Andean Dreambrand which is a combo of rice and quinoa flour that cooks well enough that my “texturally particular” (my way of saying picky without imprinting on my son’s brain that he’s picky) toddler loves it. Any grain will have some mycotoxin, but rice and quinoa tend show lower levels when tested (though rice does have its own issues, I will get into that at some point in the future).
- Use sourdough as much as possible when having bread. Lactic acid bacteria such as those found in yogurt and sourdough bind mycotoxins and prevent their absorption. I recently started making my own kombucha and at some point want to make my own sauerkraut and sourdough bread if I can ever got over the concept that I have to make it the way my dad told me when I was a kid, which is that old miners in California would keep their sourdough starter in their armpits because it was the right temperature. So from ages 8 to 16 I would not eat sourdough because I thought it all came from armpits. (And I know the point of writing this blog is not analyzing my own psychology but I have to admit that subconsciously I still kind of think about armpits when I eat sourdough. )
- Always serve beans (preferable whole black or pinto) or another high soluble fiber vegetable at Mexican meals containing corn. The fiber in the beans helps to bind the aflatoxin. As I write this I’m remembering that one of my favorite people in the world back in Iowa always wanted to eat apple sauce on his enchiladas, which seemed crazy but when I tried it, it was delicious! Maybe he knew that apples are a good source of soluble fiber so they are a perfect complement to the corn in the enchilada :).
- Eat more beets, which directly support the liver. I don’t think I personally can practically avoid mycotoxins altogether (they are even in wine!) but I can eat foods that make my liver more able to handle them. There are so many ways to enjoy beets – raw shredded beets are great in sandwiches, steamed beets taste wonderful in salads, and roasted beets are a delicious side dish. And if you are new to eating beets, don’t think your kidneys exploded if your urine if pink or red after you eat them. There is even a ridiculous Wikipedia explanation on the subject.
- Ingesting bentonite clay is one of the most effective ways to bind aflatoxins in the gut, so much so that some feedlot farmers have considered adding bentonite to their feed to keep their animals from dying of liver cancer before slaughter from the constant exposure to aflatoxin in their feed. In my private yet public blog confessional, this is the part where I confess that I have started sprinkling bentonite clay over popcorn (alongside the Celtic salt and butter) when my kids and husband eat it (I try to keep the blue corn popcornon hand). I get the super fine bentonite clay and lightly dust it over the top, mostly to give me some peace of mind that it’s soaking up aflatoxins while they’re watching a movie. Neurotic I know, but nobody has complained about their popcorn tasting like a face mask yet so don’t tell them :).