If you live gluten-free, you are no stranger to the work that’s required to manage your diet. Living with an additional food allergy or intolerance can make things trickier. That’s especially true when the additional food in question isn’t a top-eight allergen and does not have to be declared on the food label.
This is the case with corn.
Maintaining a corn-free diet requires a great deal of diligence since corn masquerades under a variety of names on food labels. Avoiding corn in its most obvious forms—cornstarch, corn meal, corn syrup and corn oil—is relatively easy. Doing the detective work to root out other possible sources of corn can be much more challenging and confusing. The best way to combat that feeling is to educate yourself with reliable information.
Why avoid corn?
Corn usually has to be avoided due to either an allergy or intolerance. A food allergy is an immune response to a food protein and can involve a host of reactions ranging from skin rashes and gastrointestinal upset to life-threatening respiratory distress. Food allergies must be diagnosed by a physician, and the screening will usually include skin prick testing, blood work and possibly an oral challenge with the food in question. Correct diagnosis is important since food allergies can be life-threatening and can be triggered by even a minute amount of the food.
Food intolerance does not involve the immune system, and while not life-threatening, the multitude of symptoms can significantly diminish one’s health and quality of life. Intolerances can be due to an inability to completely digest particular foods. Symptoms vary widely and can affect the skin, respiratory tract and gastrointestinal function. Currently there are no food intolerance tests that are accepted by conventional physicians as reliable or accurate. Working with your physician and keeping a food diary or completing an elimination diet may be the most reliable tool for determining corn intolerance. A food intolerance also differs from an allergy in that those with an intolerance can tolerate a small amount of the target food. For instance, one person may be able to tolerate a dressing made with corn oil or a corn-based sweetener while another may become symptomatic.
Since corn and its derivatives are so prevalent in our food supply, it can be difficult to maintain a nutritionally balanced diet while eating corn free. For this reason it is important that you receive an accurate diagnosis.
Currently there are no published studies that show a connection between celiac disease and a corn allergy so it appears having both is a coincidence.
You always have to read labels, but you might also have to call food makers to be sure none of the ingredients are derived from corn.
The so-called top 8 allergens must always be included in clear language on the label of a food regulated by the Food and Drug Administration under the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act. Since corn is not in the top 8, companies are not required to call out corn in the ingredient list. Sometimes the only way to be sure is to ask the food company. Most foods have toll-free numbers on the packaging. Websites also may answer questions about the use of corn in ingredients. Citric acid, dextrose, maltodextrin, fructose, sucrose, glucose and natural flavors are just a few of the “code names” that typically denote the presence of corn. There are hundreds of names that may indicate the presence of corn in a product, so consulting online lists is the best tactic for remaining informed.
The website cornallergens.com has an extensive list. Not everything on the list always contains corn, but the possibility exists so you have to check. Although many corn-derived ingredients should be free of corn protein, individual sensitivities vary, so monitoring reactions is of paramount importance.
Over the past decade a great deal of progress has been made in the gluten-free food industry. Cereals, breads, snacks and baking mixes have become more widely available, with many products reaching mainstream grocery stores. One of the unique challenges of managing a corn- and gluten-free diet is that a majority of these prepackaged products contain corn.
Cookies, breads and pastas may contain cornstarch, to add a lighter texture, or corn meal, as a gluten-free flour alternative. Rice and quinoa pasta made solely from those grains should be safe, but some gluten-free pastas combine corn with these other gluten-free grains. Xanthan gum is another prevalent ingredient in the gluten-free diet that can be made from corn. This byproduct of the fermentation of wheat, soy or corn sugars is most commonly manufactured from corn. Although xanthan gum is a refined product, and should be free of corn protein, some corn-allergic individuals report reactions to xanthan gum. Those with corn intolerance or a less-sensitive allergy may be able to consume products containing xanthan gum without becoming symptomatic, so products that contain it should not automatically be ruled out.
For those who can’t tolerate xanthan gum, this is no small matter because xanthan gum revolutionized gluten-free baking by providing a “gluten substitute.” It is indisputably helpful in adding flexibility and structure to baked goods and has allowed home bakers and manufacturers to produce foods reminiscent of their wheat counterparts.
Where to find corn in your pantry
The most common sources of corn in a gluten-free diet are cereals, breads and baked goods. Gluten-free soups, broths and sauces may also contain “natural flavors” or sweeteners derived from corn. These compounds are used by manufacturers to intensify flavors and can be found in just about everything from cookies to chicken stock. Check with the manufacturer to find out if such additives are corn-derived.
Unexpected sources such as beverages, dairy products and packaged lunch meats can also be a problem. These products often contain corn-derived natural flavors, cornstarch, corn-based sweeteners and preservatives. Canned goods such as beans, vegetables and fruits frequently have corn-derived citric acid or other preservatives added to extend shelf life. Gluten-free soy sauces and vanilla extracts may also need to be avoided, depending on individual sensitivities, since they typically contain alcohol made from corn.
While baking powders and powdered sugars are usually gluten-free, most brands include cornstarch in their preparation. Another surprising source of corn is iodized salt, which contains dextrose (a sugar typically derived from corn) to stabilize the iodine.
Additional sources of corn include over-the-counter medications, prescription drugs and vitamins. Various corn products such as starch, dextrin and microcrystalline cellulose are widely used in pharmaceutical manufacturing. Working with your physician and a knowledgeable compounding pharmacy is essential for managing this aspect of a corn-free diet.
Gluten-free, corn-free baking and cooking
The scarcity of suitable store-bought foods means that home cooking is necessary to successfully manage a gluten-free, corn-free diet.
For baking, guar gum is an effective substitute for xanthan gum. Baking powder and vanilla extract can be made at home, and sea salt is a good option for people who react to the dextrose in iodized salt. Arrowroot, tapioca and potato starch make good substitutes for cornstarch in baked goods. Honey, agave, maple syrup or Lyle’s golden syrup work well as replacements for corn syrup.
When choosing one of these liquid sweeteners, it’s important to read labels to ensure that your brand of choice is “pure” and doesn’t add flavorings or corn syrup to the final product. Corn-free powdered sugar can be made from scratch with tapioca starch or purchased at some specialty grocery stores. Most brown sugars are safe, but check individual brand labels to ensure that no flavorings or caramel color are present.
When cooking, look for pure oils that do not contain flavorings or additives. Vegetable oil is typically a blend of oils that includes corn oil, so it should be avoided. Olive, safflower and coconut oils are good choices. Homemade chicken stock or even water can be a useful substitute for store-bought broth in soups and sauces. Gluten-free, corn-free soy sauce alternatives such as coconut aminos are also available. To replicate a crisp “breading” for fish and chicken, you can use quinoa flakes or finely ground gluten-free certified oats.
Although it may sound daunting, it is possible to prepare gluten-free, corn-free foods once you learn all the ins and outs of avoiding this ubiquitous ingredient.
The following is a list of recipes for making basic things most people just buy.
- Baking powder
Mix ¼ teaspoon baking soda and ½ teaspoon cream of tartar to replace 1 teaspoon of baking powder in a recipe.
- Vanilla extract
Slice 4 vanilla beans lengthwise and submerge them in a jar filled with 12 ounces of pure potato or grape vodka. Allow to sit for 6 weeks before using for optimal flavor.
- Powdered sugar
In a food processor or heavy duty blender, process 1 cup of granulated sugar and 1 tablespoon of arrowroot or tapioca starch until it is fine and a bit powdery (2 to 3 minutes).
Terris Cleary is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy who specializes in creating gluten-free, allergy-friendly recipes. Managing her own celiac disease and her son’s multiple food allergies prompted her to create the food blog freeeatsfood.com.