Health Benefits of Corn

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Corn grows in ‘ears,’ each of which is covered in rows of kernels that are then protected by the silk-like threads called ‘corn silk’ and encased in a husk. Corn is known scientifically as Zea mays. This moniker reflects its traditional name, maize, by which it was known to the Native Americans as well as many other cultures throughout the world.

Health Benefits of Corn

Health benefits of corn include controlling diabetes, prevention of heart ailments, lowering hypertension and prevention of neural-tube defects at birth. Corn or maize is one of the most popular cereals in the world and forms the staple food in many countries including USA, Africa etc. It not only provides the necessary calories for daily metabolism, but is a rich source of vitamins A, B, E and many minerals. Its high fibre content ensures that it plays a role in prevention of digestive ailments like constipation and haemorrhoids as well as colorectal cancer. The antioxidants present in corn also act as anti-cancer agents and prevent Alzheimer�s.

Health benefits of corn are offered by presence of quality nutrients in it. Also, being rich in phytochemicals, it provides protection against numerous chronic diseases. Following are some of the health benefits of corn:

  • Rich Source of Calories: Corn is a rich source of calories and forms a part of the staple diet among many populations. The calorific content of corn is 342 calories per 100grams, among the highest in cereals.
  • Prevention of Haemorrhoids and Colorectal Cancer: The fibre content of one cup of corn amounts 18.4% of the daily recommended amount. This aids in alleviating digestive problems such as constipation and haemorrhoids, as well as lowering the risk of colon cancer.
  • Rich Source of Vitamins: Corn is rich in vitamin B constituents, especially Thiamin and Niacin. Thiamin is essential for maintaining nerve health and cognitive function. Niacin deficiency leads to Pellagra; a disease characterised by diarrhoea, dementia and dermatitis and is commonly observed in malnourished individuals. Corn is also a good source of Pantothenic acid which is a vitamin necessary for carbohydrate as well as protein and lipid metabolism in the body. Deficiency of folic acid in pregnant women leads to birth of underweight infants and may also result in neural tube defects at birth. Corn provides a large chunk of the daily folate requirement. Yellow corn is a rich source of beta-carotene which forms vitamin A in the body, essential for maintenance of good vision and skin. The kernels of corn are rich in vitamin E, a natural antioxidant essential for growth.
  • Provides Necessary Minerals: Corn contains abundant phosphorus apart from magnesium, manganese, zinc, iron and copper. It also contains trace minerals like selenium. Phosphorus is essential for maintenance of normal growth, bone health and normal kidney functioning. Magnesium is necessary for maintaining normal heart rate and for bone strength.
  • Antioxidant Properties of Corn: According to studies carried out at Cornell University, corn is a rich source of antioxidants which fight the cancer causing free radicals. In fact, cooking increases the antioxidants in sweet corn. Corn is a rich source of a phenolic compound ferulic acid, an anti-cancer agent which has been shown to be effective in fighting tumours in breast cancer and liver cancer. Anthocyanins, found in purple corn also act as scavengers of cancer-causing free radicals.
  • Cardio-Protective Attributes: According to researchers, corn oil has been shown to anti-atherogenic effect on the cholesterol levels, thus preventing the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
  • Prevents Anaemia: The vitamin B12 and folic acid present in corn prevent anaemia caused by the deficiency of these vitamins.
  • Lowering LDL Cholesterol: According to Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, consumption of corn husk oil lowers plasma LDL cholesterol by reducing cholesterol absorption by the body.
  • Protection against Diabetes and Hypertension: Consumption of corn kernels assists the management of non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) and is effective against hypertension due to the presence of phenolic phytochemicals in whole corn.
  • Cosmetic Benefits: Corn starch is used in the manufacture of many cosmetics and may also be applied topically to soothe skin rashes and irritations. Corn products can be used to replace carcinogenic petroleum products which form major components of cosmetic preparations.

Corn has gathered a diverse reputation in the U.S. For some people, corn is a “staple” food that provides the foundation for tortillas, burritos, or polenta. For others, corn is a “snack” food that comes in the form of popcorn and corn chips. For still others, corn is a “special summertime food” that is essential at barbecues and cookouts. But regardless of its reputation, corn is seldom considered in the U.S. as a unique source of health benefits. Yet that’s exactly what research results are telling us about this amazing grain.

Antioxidant Benefits

While it might sound surprising to some people who are used to thinking about corn as a plain, staple food, or a snack food, or a summertime party food, corn is actually a unique phytonutrient-rich food that provides us with well-documented antioxidant benefits. In terms of conventional antioxidant nutrients, corn is a good source of the mineral manganese. But it is corn’s phytonutrients that have taken center stage in the antioxidant research on corn. When all varieties of corn are considered as a group, the list of corn’s key antioxidant nutrients appears as follows:

Antioxidant Phytonutrients in Corn

  • anthocyanins
  • beta-carotene
  • caffeic acid
  • coumaric acid
  • ferulic acid
  • lutein
  • syringic acid
  • vanillic acid
  • protocatechuic acid
  • zeaxanthin

Different varieties of corn highlight different combinations of antioxidant phytonutrients. In the case of yellow corn, carotenoids lead the way and provide especially high concentrations of lutein and zeaxanthin. Blue corn is unique in its anthocyanin antioxidants. One particular hydroxybenzoic acid in purple corn—protocatechuic acid—has recently been linked to the strong antioxidant activity in this corn variety.

Most studies of disease and risk reduction from dietary antioxidant intake have not looked specifically at corn and its impressive combination of antioxidants. However, in several small-scale studies, corn has been directly mentioned as a food that was important in overall antioxidant protection and a contributing factor in the decreased risk of cardiovascular problems. Some of the mechanisms for decreased cardio risk may be related to other properties of corn’s phytonutrients that go beyond their antioxidant properties. For example, some of the phytonutrients in corn may be able to inhibit angiotensin-I converting enzyme (ACE) and help lower risk of high blood pressure in this way. We suspect that future studies will further confirm the important role of corn’s phytonutrients in reduction of risk for a variety of health problems, and that antioxidant and other properties will play a key role in this risk reduction.

One great piece of news about corn’s antioxidants involves the practice of drying corn (still on the cob) or separated corn kernels. Research studies have shown that the drying of corn in temperature ranges as high as 150°-200°F (65°-93°C) does not significantly lower corn’s antioxidant capacity. This research confirms the wisdom of many North American and Mesoamerican cultures which relied on naturally-dried corn in the preparation of meal foods, especially during the winter months.

Interestingly, recent research has determined that the percent of amylose starch found in corn may be related to its antioxidant capacity. Higher amylose corn varieties have shown higher antioxidant capacity in some preliminary studies. While the jury is out on the exact meaning of these findings, this research reminds us to keep an open mind about the potential importance of antioxidant health benefits from corn.

Digestive Benefits

Anyone who has eaten fresh corn-on-the-cob or freshly popped popcorn knows how satisfying this food can be to chew. Some of that satisfaction comes from corn’s fiber content. At 4.6 grams of fiber per cup, corn is a good fiber source, and in research studies, corn intake is often associated with good overall fiber intake. For example, persons who eat popcorn tend to have 2-3 times more overall whole grain intake than persons who do not eat popcorn, and they also tend to have higher overall fiber intake as well.

Corn fiber is one of the keys to its well-documented digestive benefits. Recent research has shown that corn can support the growth of friendly bacteria in our large intestine and can also be transformed by these bacteria into short chain fatty acids, or SCFAs. These SCFAs can supply energy to our intestinal cells and thereby help lower our risk of intestinal problems, including our risk of colon cancer. The amount of corn fiber analyzed in recent studies has been relatively high at 12 grams per day. That’s the same amount provided by about 2.5 cups of fresh corn. While that amount might be more than any person would consume in a single meal, it’s an amount that a person might easily eat over the course of several days. We suspect that future research will demonstrate the risk-reducing effects of smaller amounts of corn consumed over a longer period of time.

Blood Sugar Benefits

Given its good fiber content, its ability to provide many B-complex vitamins including vitamins B1, B5 and folic acid, and its notable protein content (about 5-6 grams per cup), corn is a food that would be expected to provide blood sugar benefits. Fiber and protein are key macronutrients for stabilizing the passage of food through our digestive tract. Sufficient fiber and protein content in a food helps prevent too rapid or too slow digestion of that food. By evening out the pace of digestion, protein and fiber also help prevent too rapid or too slow uptake of sugar from the digestive tract up into the bloodstream. Once the uptake of sugar is steadied, it is easier to avoid sudden spikes or drops in blood sugar.

Consumption of corn in ordinary amounts of 1-2 cups has been shown to be associated with better blood sugar control in both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Fasting glucose and fasting insulin levels have been used to verify these blood sugar benefits. Interestingly, in elementary school-age and teenage youths already diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, whole grain cornbread has emerged in one study as the whole grain food with the highest acceptability among all whole grain foods. Youth participants in the study who consumed whole grain cornbread were also less likely to consume fast foods.

Other Benefits

In countries outside of the U.S., numerous studies have examined the ability of corn to improve overall nourishment, especially when combined with legumes. Researchers conducting these studies have been interested in absorption of minerals like zinc, calcium and iron, as well as overall energy and protein intake. Maize (corn)-bean meals (typically consumed in the form of porridge that combines these foods) have been shown to help improve overall nutrient status and to help provide outstanding nutrient richness in the diet.

One fascinating new area of research on corn involves its potential anti-HIV activity. Lectins are special proteins found in virtually all foods (and for that matter, in virtually all organisms) that can bind onto carbohydrates or onto carbohydrate receptors that are found on cell membranes. In the case of some micro-organisms (including the HIV virus), the binding of lectins onto sugars has been shown to help inhibit activity of the virus. One specific lectin found in corn (called GNAmaize) has preliminarily been shown to possess this HIV-inhibiting property. Of course, much more research is needed to determine the relationship between everyday consumption of corn as a whole food and HIV infection risk.

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