What is corn?
If you have ever had a debate about whether corn is a grain or a vegetable, the truth is there isn’t one correct answer. According the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), corn is considered both a grain and a vegetable! It just depends on when the corn is harvested. Corn was first cultivated in the area of Mexico, then spreading through North and South America. Eventually, it was introduced to Europe, China, and around the world thereafter.
One of the most popular foods in the U.S., there are four main types of corn. First, the sweet corn that you eat on or off the cob comes in yellow, white, or a combination of the two colors. Second, popcorn, which before being popped, has a soft, starchy center and a hard golden shell. Third, flint corn is harder than sweet corn. It comes in black, blue, red, and white. Flint corn grows in Central and South America, and in the U.S. it is mainly used for fall decorations. Last but not least, dent corn comes in yellow and white, and has a “dent” in the top of each kernel. It is mainly used for animal feed and manufactured foods such as tortilla chips.
Is corn gluten free?
In its natural form, corn is gluten free. When it is in a processed food, you need to evaluate the full ingredient list as well as any risk of cross contamination. To avoid cross contamination in milled or ground corn products, such as corn flour and cornmeal, choose products that are labeled gluten free and avoid buying these foods in bulk. Always double check the ingredient labels to ensure store-bought foods are truly gluten free. For example, reading food labels can help you verify whether gluten-containing ingredients are hidden in corn products that contain sauce. Even store-bought popcorn may contain gluten in the seasoning. When you are consider popcorn at a movie theater or community fair, ask questions about how it is prepared, how often the popcorn machine is cleaned, and what ingredients are in the flavorings before consuming. You will need to inquire about whether corn dishes contain gluten when dining out as well.
Is corn a grain?
If corn is harvested when it is dry and fully mature, it is considered a grain that can be milled into cornmeal, which is less fine than flour. In Mexico, very finely ground cornmeal is referred to as corn flour. Cornmeal and corn flour can be used to make foods such as tortillas, chips, and crackers. If you want to consume corn as a “whole grain,” consider popcorn — popcorn kernels are also harvested when fully mature. Popcorn contains much more dietary fiber than fresh corn.
Is corn a vegetable?
Fresh corn (a whole food), such as good old corn on the cob and frozen corn, is harvested when soft and is considered a starchy vegetable. In this state, the corn kernels contain liquid, making them juicy. Enjoy corn as a side dish, or mixed with other vegetables. Eat fresh corn in moderation, as it contains carbohydrates that can raise your blood sugar levels.
Is corn nutritious?
Since corn is classified as a starchy carbohydrate, dietitians recommend that it should be consumed in moderation. Corn contains vitamin C, which is an antioxidant that helps protect your cells from damage. Yellow corn is a good source of the carotenoids (another type antioxidant) lutein and zeaxanthin, which are nutrients that are good for eye health. Corn contains other phytochemicals, including phenolic acids, flavonoids, fiber, and resistant starch. Some studies tout corn’s health benefits, suggesting it is “rich in nutrients, bioactive compounds, and phytochemicals.” Corn also contains small amounts of vitamins B, E, and K, as well as minerals such as magnesium and potassium. When it comes to nutrients, color is important. White and yellow corn has fewer antioxidants than blue or purple corn. These dark-colored types of corn are often found in chips and taco shells.
More about cornstarch
Cornstarch (corn ground into a powder) is made by grinding up the starchy carbohydrate part of corn grains, which are turned into a very fine powder. Cornstarch is gluten free when in its natural form. Cornstarch is typically used as a thickener for soups, stews, sauces, and gravies. It is also commonly added to gluten-free flours to create a smoother texture.
More about corn flour
Corn flour (milled corn) is gluten free when in its natural form. It has a light and fine texture making it a good addition to baked goods. Purchase corn flour that is labeled gluten free to prevent cross contamination that can take place during manufacturing processes.
More about cornmeal
Cornmeal (coarse ground corn) is gluten free when in its natural form. Just like cornstarch and corn flour, choose products that are labeled gluten free when possible, as cross contamination can occur during manufacturing.
Want to learn if other common foods are gluten free? Visit our Diet section.