Corn Allergy And Intolerance

Colorful corn on the cob photo.

Why People React To Corn

Many people react to corn, and indeed they may have an allergy or an intolerance/sensitivity to corn. However, entire populations have survived, and even flourished with corn as a main staple of their diet. Still, we know other populations have been devastated by it. These inconsistancies tell us there is more going on here than meets the eye. Reactions to corn have ranged from nutritional depletion, such as Pellagra, to outright IgE allergic reactions.

Corn Agriculture, Processing, And Preparation

How corn is grown, processed, and prepared in the modern western diet has caused a lot of the issues that lead to someone reacting to corn. Corn is not always the culprit. It is often our own ignorance. Below, is a list of issues related to corn in our diet. These corn related health issues will be followed by more detailed data on each of them.

  • Corn proteins - the prolamin lectins: A true corn allergy or intolerance to corn protein. Science is catching up with this fact. See the details below.
  • Pesticides: Some GMO corn contains insecticides inside the corn plant, these insecticides are actually made by the corn plant itself. It is not just sprayed on the plant. The plant is an insecticide making factory! Don't trust corn that has been sprayed with pesticides and especially don't trust corn that makes it's own pesticide. What were the scientists thinking?
  • Herbicides: RoundUp® Ready Corn has been around for some time, and it has been heavily sprayed with RoundUp® and other forms of glyphosate sprays. Don't trust corn that has been sprayed with herbicides.
  • Phytates: They are mineral binders.
  • Enzyme Inhibitors: These inhibit your digestive enzymes.
  • Pellagra: If corn is a large part of the diet, and not nixtamalized, or lacto-fermented, or soaked in something acidic, it can cause Pellagra which is due to decreased nicotinamide (B3) in the diet.
  • Mycotoxins: Corn is known to contain aflatoxins, and fumonisins as well as other mycotoxins.

 

Corn Allergy

Allergies are true IgE antibody reactions and thought to be rare with corn. A 2012 study in Milan Italy, suggests that some corn proteins, specifi­cally the prolamins (zeins) in corn, contain amino acid sequences that resemble the gluten proteins in wheat (gluten proteins are prolamins too). They resemble gluten so closely that eating corn could have a similarly damaging effect as wheat in  people with celiac disease. Corn is used as an alterna­tive to wheat in many gluten-free food products.

In a 2006 double-blind placebo-controlled food challenge with 4 people known to have corn allergy (not very big study), the participants reacted to corn with the following symptoms.

  • Erythema (red skin, flushing)
  • Pruritus (itching)
  • Urticaria (hives)
  • Itching and blistering inside the mouth
  • Throat tightening
  • Atopic dermatitis flares (eczema)
  • Abdominal pain

Corn Sensitivity

Sensitivity to a food, is a term used for any perceived reaction after ingesting the said food, that does not cause a true allergic reaction (IgE antibody reaction).

In the case of corn, a sensitivity could be a reaction to some part of the corn, even the fact that it contains phytates, enzyme inhibitors and specifically decreases your B3 if not processed correctly, will have negative health effects that some people may be more sensitive to than others.  A reaction to corn could also be a reaction to some toxin associated with the corn such as an insecticide, pesticide, mycotoxin, or other unidentified toxin.

Phytates

Phytate, or phytic acid is mostly found in the outer hull of seeds. It is in a variety of plant products with them predominating in  whole grains, beans, and also found in nuts. Any actual food item that could be used as a seed to grow a new plant is suspect of having a lot of phytic acid. Corn is a seed.

Phytic acid is the primary storage compound of phosphorus in seeds. It is strongly negatively charged and the phosphate in phytic acid strongly binds to metallic cations of calcium, iron, postassium, Magnesium, Manganeese and Zinc, making them insoluble and thus unavailable as nutritional factors. Phytate mainly accumulates in protein storage vacuoles as globoids, predominantly located in the aleurone layer (wheat, barley and rice) or in the embryo (corn). During germination, phytate is hydrolysed by endogenous phytase(s) and other phosphatases to release phosphate, inositol and micronutrients to support the growing seedling.

The process of fermentation, and sprouting can be used to remove phytate from corn and other seeds. Nixtamalization of corn has also been shown to reduce phytates.

Enzyme Inhibitors

Just as seeds contain phytates, they also contain enzyme inhibitors. These enzyme inhibitors inhibit seeds from sprouting but they also inhibit our digestive enzymes. This can lead to all manner of mild or serious digestive problems. These enzyme inhibitors prevent the seeds from sprouting until just the right conditions come along. The right conditions are usually water, warmth, and slight acidity such as found during fermentation. So, just as with phytates, soaking, or fermentation can remove enzyme inhibitors.

Lectins

I mentioned above that corn has been found to contain prolamins called Zein, that cause allergy reactions similar to gluten. They are lectins and it is important to know that humans can be benefited or made ill by different types of lectins. Lectins are carbohydrate-binding proteins that are present in both plants and animals. The prolamin lectin in corn appears to be causing an allergic reaction in some people. They are known to interact  with the brush border of the intestine (which may impact cell viability and/or barrier function in addition to allowing transport of the toxic lectin into the body); and they are biologically active once they enter the body.

Most grains contain a prolamin similar in structure to gluten, and zein, such as orzenin in rice or avenin in oats. These prolamins contribute to the cross-reactivity experienced by so many with a gluten sensitivity, and yet grains that contain them are often used as gluten-free alternatives.

Besides corn, lectins are found in other grains, (especially wheat and wheat germ), quinoa, rice, buckwheat, oats, rye, barley, and millet, all legumes, including dried beans, soy and peanuts contain these potentially toxic lectins. Dairy is another source and some think this is due to feeding cows/goats grains rather than being entirely grass fed.

Secretory IgA binds lectins and protects us from them, but some people do not make secretory IgA, and some mycotoxins which are too often associated with corn and other grains, have been shown to decrease production of secretory IgA.

There is data suggesting that lectins are also inactivated by soaking, sprouting, cooking (high temps like boiling) and fermenting.

How I Personally Decrease Lectins, Enzyme Inhibitors & Phytates In Food in general

I use whole grains and legumes all the time. In fact, daily. I soak them for at least 24 hours with a home-made bacterial starter made specifically for them or with legumes in water. This is a process that many cultures have used to eat these foods through-out her/history. The grains are fermented and sprouted during the soaking process. Hard shelled legumes are not fermented, but they do sprout.

Corn is a special candidate in that it has been soured both by a lacto-fermentation process (acidic process), as are most of the seed foods, but is also processed with ash or calcium hydroxide which is an alkaline process. Historically, this was from wood ashes leached with water. Now people use food-grade calcium hydroxide, or calcium magnesium carbonate. The ash/calcium hydroxide method has been used historically by many Mexican people to prevent pelagra.

If you want to learn how to make sour corn to lower corn anti-nutrients, check out the Sour Corn Recipe.

In a study measuring phytates in fermented corn, and comparing it with the original corn prior to the ferment, 96% of the phytates were gone after 5 days of lactic-fermentation.

Pesticides

Some corn contains pesticides, also called insecticides. This is not pesticides sprayed on the plant but a pesticide made by the plant itself. One of the GMO corns created, makes an insecticide called BT Corn. BT stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, a gram-positive, soil dwelling bacteria. BT is sometimes found in the gut of caterpillars of various moths and butterflies and appears to cause a disease state in these insects. The BT corn was created to breakdown the gut of the insect eating the plant. The industry making it claims it is safe for all other insects, reptiles and mammals. However, there is not proof of this and in fact some proff of the opposite. A 2014 review of rat studies showed all the studies were inadequate or significantly flawed that had been used to support its safe use in rats. Does it affect us if we eat it? Does it affect us if we eat an animal that eats BT corn? (which is fed a lot in conventional farming of animals) We don't know since it was never shown to be safe for us to eat.

Some people think they are safe from BT corn as they do not eat meat and they only eat organic corn. However, non-BT corn plants have been known to be cross pollinated by BT corn plants. Some people have just flat outright quit eating all corn, and corn products due to a lack of knowing which organic corn may have been tainted by BT toxins. Most organic corn is not tested for BT, so unless tested, there is no way to know.  We did get Tilth (Oregon organic certification body) to start testing a tiny fraction of crops for genetic alterations some years back, but the amount tested is so small that we can't depend on this. Third party non-GMO testing is helpful, although I would find out how sensitive the test is that they are using. In other words, does the test find 95% of the GMO proteins or 99% .

Herbicides

RoundUp® Ready Corn is everywhere. This corn is found in places where no one has ever planted it. It has seeped into our environment, and has made us mistrust even organic corn. The real threat of any product that is genetically engineered for herbicide resistance is that it is a double threat. There is the fact that the food was genetically altered, which always involves unknown changes in addition to the planned and acknowledged changes. Those additional changes are known, and unknown, and they are of concern. The second threat, that is perhaps more frightening, is that any crop that is modified to withstand heavy applications of herbicides, gets that herbicide applied often to the crop. Companies are known to outright lie about the safety of their herbicide. So, it becomes a buyer beware situation when purchasing a product such as corn syrup that may, or may not have been made with a genetically engineered corn, sprayed heavily with herbicide. I mention RoundUp® Ready Corn which is made to withstand that specific glyphosate product, but other types of genetically engineered corns are available, and RoundUp® is on the way out, as law suits are being won against Bayer-Monsanto. Don't believe them when they tell you any of these GMO corns are safe. Any corn that can have herbicide freely poured over it, is not safe. If they can use herbicide directly on the corn as a method of killing weeds around it, they will and freely. There is no proof of safety with any of them that I have seen. If you want to really understand the devastation of glyphosate, check out one, or all of these articles on this website:

Glyphosate, RoundUp®, And Genetically Engineered Corn Associated With Cancer

Glyphosate And Disease It Is Associated With

Glyphosate Incorporating Into Our Bodies Proteins

Glyphosate Inhaled Directly Into Your Brain

Pellagra

Pellagra has been caused by eating corn as a dietary staple in some societies. Pellagra is primarily due to a dietary deficiency of nicotinamide or B3. However, a second nutrient, tryptophan, can act as precursor of B3 with approximately one sixtieth of the activity of the actual vitamin. Corn is lower in B3 content than are wheat and rice, and the mixed proteins of corn are lower in their tryptophan content. This makes corn low on the totem pole of staple foods with available nicotinamide.

So, how is it that people of Mexico and Central America, where corn has been the staple for millennia have no issue with Pellegra? The secret is soaking in ash or calcium hydroxide (nixtamalization) and lactic-fermentation.

Niacin content of foods depend greatly on the method of extraction used. Most of the B vitamins are lost from corn during processing. However, lactic-fermentation, and nixtamalization  (alkali treatment with ash or calcium hydroxide or other alkali) can increase bioavailability of riboflavin (B2) and B3. Nixtamalization also increases calcium from the ash or calcium hydroxide and it makes iron more bioavailable.

In nixtamalization for tortilla preparation, corn is mixed with an alkaline solution, heated, soaked, and rinsed, now you have hominy, the hominy is ground resulting in a chemically altered dough known as masa which can be used fresh to make tortillas or dried as masa flour.

You will see mention of people using lime water in Mexico to soak corn. This is not the citrus form of lime. This is "lime" made from ash or from calcium hydroxide. You will see calcium hydroxide sold as "lime". In the book "Nourishing Traditions", Sally Fallon gives directions for making lime water by putting 1 inch of dolamite powder (calicum magnesium carbonate powder) in a 1/2 gallon canning jar. Fill the jar with water (clean, non-chlorinated), and put a lid on it. Shake it well and let it sit over night. The sediment in the bottom is not used. The clear water is the lime water you use. It can be kept on your shelf as it does not need refrigeration. Sally Fallon has many wonderful recipes involving fermentation and healthy eating in her book. You can get the book here.

 

Mycotoxins

The primary mycotoxins affecting corn are aflatoxin and fumonisin. Click here for detailed data on aflatoxins. Mycotoxins are altered during food processing and some methods have been found to decrease them. In general, there are  processing methods that can lower mycotoxin contamination of food. However, some activities can actually release metabolites from "masked" mycotoxins also. Methods that have been shown to reduce general mycotoxin contamination are cleaning; milling; brewing; fermentation; cooking; baking; frying; roasting; flaking; enzymes; alkaline cooking (nixtamalization), hulling of grains and extrusion. Nixtamalization has been studied quite a bit in corn processing as a method to lower mycotoxins. Upon nixtamalization, mycotoxins can be affected in di fferent ways. However, many studies have shown reduced mycotoxin levels in alkali-cooked corn and in tortillas. Most of the available data relates to aflatoxins and fumonisins since they are so often the mycotoxins on corn.
The reduction (and detoxification) of aflatoxins during nixtamalization might, however, be partially
reversed in acidic conditions that are sometimes part of the processing after nixtamalization. The loss of fumonisin concentrations is to some extent accompanied by
hydrolyzation and by lower toxicity. However, some studies have indicated the potential formation of toxicologically relevant modified forms and matrix-associated fumonisins. There is not enough data yet to make bold statements about what is taking place.

Aflatoxin

Aflatoxins are a huge problem in our food chain and corn is one of the many foods that can be contiminated with it. Humans can get aflatoxin poisoning from corn directly or it may be in the meat or milk an individual is drinking.

Aflatoxins are known to be hepatotoxic (liver toxins), teratogenic (causes malformations of an embryo or fetus), mutagenic or genotoxic (causes mutations in genetic material), carcinogenic (cause cancer), nephrotoxicity (kidney damage) and immunotoxic (harm the immune system). They also have been shown to cause reproductive damage, inhibit pancreatic enzymes, decrease bile salts, clotting factor synthesis, decrease glucose metabolism as well as the creation of fatty acids and phopholipids. Afltoxins have also been shown in animals to decrease bile acids and bile production. Additionally, aflotoxins have been found to effect some nutrients. They lower A and D as well as zinc, selenium and iron.

Even at low levels aflatoxin may have devastating effects.

Aflatoxin, And Hepatitis B Together, Increase Incidence Of Liver Cancer

People who have Hepatitis B, and consume food with aflatoxin are at increased risk of developing hepatocellular carcinoma much more than having one of these factors by themselves. Aflatoxin is implicated in hepatocellular carcinoma in humans and hepatic necrosis in horses. A cohort study of more than 18,000 individuals in China clearly showed a relative risk for hepatocellular carcinoma of 3.4 more in subjects who showed AFB1 exposure measured by urinary AFB1-N7-guanine, while the relative risk for subjects positive for hepatitis B antigen was 7.3 to get hepatocellular carcinoma. A combination of hepatitis B and AFB1 exposure increased the relative risk for hepatocellular carcinoma to 59.

A variety of methods are used to decrease affect of aflatoxins. These range from binders, and antioxidants to supporting glutathione production and glutathione conjugation.

Read more about this in the "Aflatoxin article" on this website.

Fumonisin

Corn is the crop most commonly contaminated by fumonisin, and fumonisins are the most common mycotoxins found in corn, although these toxins can occur in a few other crops as well.

The fumonisins are a group of mycotoxins produced primarily by Fusarium verticillioides, and Fusarium proliferatum, although a few other Fusarium species may also produce them. Fumonisins as a group, are the second most prevalent mycotoxin worldwide. They act synergistically with other mycotoxins, and are a problem in animal rearing on farms, due to the common use of corn (GMO usually) as animal feed.

There is a close structural similarity between fumonisin, and sphingosine. Additionally, fumonisins are the first known, naturally occurring inhibitors of sphingolipid biosynthesis. Sphingolipids are a second type of lipid found in cell membranes, particularly nerve cells and brain tissues. One route of toxicity from fumonisin B1 is  via inhibition of ceramide synthase that catalyzes the formation of dihydroceramide from sphingosine. This mechanism of action may explain the wide variety of health effects observed when this mycotoxin is ingested, like high rate of human esophageal cancer and promotion of primary liver cancer.

Fumonisins are classified as possible human carcinogens. They are known carcinogens in animals. Although, the research on human toxicity is needing to be undertaken, there is animal research. Horses that are poisoned with fumonisins may develop a fatal disease known as equine leukoencephalomalacia. Symptoms of this disease include drowsiness, blindness, staggering, and liquefaction of brain tissue. Pigs that are poisoned with fumonisins may experience reduced feed intake and weight gain, liver damage, and can develop pulmonary (lung) edema, in which the animals' lungs are filled with fluid. Fumonisins are carcinogenic to laboratory animals, and in humans, consumption of fumonisin-contaminated corn appears to possibly be associated with higher rates of esophageal cancer, and neural tube birth defects although this is inconclusive.

Cholestyramine may be helpful as a binder for fumonisins and antioxidants, and some enzymes appear to be helpful to decrease fumonisin effects in animals.

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