Corn differs from other grains in that its kernels are much larger and it can be eaten fresh as a vegetable. Dried corn is ground into flour or can be used for feeding livestock. Corn is probably the only grain that originated in the United Sates, and was used as a staple food by Native Americans.
The use of corn as a food spread to Mexico and South America, as well as Europe. More recently, corn has become increasingly popular in Eastern countries. The production of corn has been expanding in the past few decades until it is now approaching the importance of wheat and rice.
Also known as maize, corn has many uses. It can be eaten fresh, steamed or boiled. Popcorn is a fairly healthy snack and is relatively low in calorie content. The high fiber in corn helps promote proper activity in the intestines.
Corn flour or cornmeal can be used to make tortillas or cornbread. Corn which is young is high in oil, and corn oil is used for cooking and in margarines. The mash which is left after the oil is pressed and removed is called polenta, and can be used like cornmeal. Polenta is frequently mixed with beans to provide a higher vitamin and mineral content.
History of Corn
Corn’s earliest use dates all the way back to 5,000 B.C.E. Corn was an important staple for Native Americans and the early colonists. Pellagra, a disease which is characterized by skin rashes, fatigue and digestive tract inflammation, is caused by a deficiency of vitamin B3. People whose diets are largely composed of corn are prone to this disease.
The early settlers and Native Americans learned to mix limestone that had been burned into ash with their corn. While those early consumers did not have a scientific reason for doing so, they knew that their counterparts who ate corn in this way were healthier. Today we know that limestone ash, or potash, helps the body to utilize vitamin B.
Corn’s popularity grew strongest in areas where rice could not be easily grown. Corn became especially popular in the 1700s. Corn was first made into cornflakes for breakfast cereals about 1907. The largest producers of corn today are China, Russia, Mexico, Brazil and the United States.
Corn Health Benefits
Corn by itself does not contain enough nutrients to be a complete food. People who subsist mainly on a diet of corn run the risk of developing pellagra, a niacin deficiency (as noted above). If eaten in a tortilla form with potash, more nutrients are consumed.
Corn is a good source of vitamin B1, as well as vitamin B5, vitamin C, vitamin E, folic acid, phosphorous and magnesium.
While corn is known to be low in proteins, it is an adequate source of complex carbohydrates as well as fiber and essential fatty acids.
The different varieties of corn get their various colors from the carotenes and flavanoids in it. Native Americans placed a higher value on corn when it was red, black, blue or pink. Some types also came in stripes or spots. Healthy phytochemicals are located in the outer layer of the endosperm tissue in seed plants such as corn. Yellow corn is high in the carotenoid known as lutein. Therefore, food products which are made from yellow corn can be used to protect against heart disease, as well as macular degeneration, an eye condition which is typically found in elderly people.
Corn should be purchased from a store or farmer’s market that is able to keep it refrigerated. This is because picked corn goes through a rapid conversion from sugar to starch. Keep it in a tightly sealed bag in the refrigerator until read to cook it. Do not remove the husks until ready to cook. Corn can be cooked and frozen in freezer bags. Blanch the whole ears for 7 to 11 minutes, depending on the size. Cut the corn from the ears and freeze, or freeze the whole ears.
Corn which is still on the cob can be prepared either dry or wet. When cooking corn that is dry, a grill or oven is used. The corn should be soaked in water for a few minutes before being cooked in this manner. The moisture will help trap steam around the kernels, which then gently cooks the ears. If using a boiling method for cooking corn, the corn should be husked and added to a pot of cold water. When the water begins to boil, take the corn out to avoid overcooking.
Cornmeal grits and corn flour should be stored in the refrigerator in airtight containers. They will stay fresh for up to three months in the refrigerator: six months if frozen.
Quick serving tips for corn include the following:
- Use cornmeal instead of traditional flour to make muffins, crepes and pancakes.
- Add corn to almost any soup.
- Combine cooked corn kernels, tomatoes, quinoa, a green pepper and red kidney beans for a delicious summer salad.
- Serve corn cold as a side dish or use it as a filling in sandwiches.
Corn is among the most common food allergies. One current concern over this grain is the use of genetically-modified corn. This is because the insecticidal protein that genetically-modified corn was meant to produce exhibits some characteristics of known allergens. Adverse health effects include severe allergies and anaphylactic shock. Also, the pollen from genetically-modified corn is known to contaminate other, natural corn. Therefore, the use of organic corn, cornmeal and corn flour is recommended.
- Holford, P. The optimum nutrition bible, Little Brown Group (2004)
- Holford, P & Lawson, S. Optimum Nutrition Made Easy How to achieve optimum health, Piatkus Books (2008)
- Murray, M.T. et al., Encyclopedia of healing foods, London : Piatkus (2005)
- The National Research Council. Recommended Dietary Allowances, 10th ed, National Academy of Sciences (1989)
- Werbach, M. Nutritional Influences on Illness, 2nd ed, Third Line Press (1993)
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