Corn is the New World grain. At the time of Columbus’ discovery of America, it was cultivated as far north as the Missouri River, eastward along the Atlantic coast, and as far south as the Incan Empire in Peru.
Paleoarcheologists believe the domestication of corn, a cross between two wild grasses, is at least 9,000 years old and occurred in the highlands of Southern Mexico. It was first cultivated in the American Southwest about 2100 BC, from where it spread to other indigenous cultures. Maize was the staple food in pre-Columbian North American, Mesoamerican, South American, and Caribbean Island cultures.
Not only do ancient civilizations owe much to the humble maize, but modern civilization also depends heavily on it. Corn is the most widely grown grain crop in the Americas, with 332 million tons grown annually in the United States alone. That’s a lot of corn! Approximately 40% of the crop, about 130 million tons, is used to make ethanol for fuel.
Lately, however, we’ve gotten far away from the original corn crops of these centuries before. Today, genetically modified corn make up 85% of the maize planted in the United States. Unfortunately, scientifically manipulated genetically modified foods pose serious risks to humans, domesticated animals, wildlife, and the environment. Human health risks include allergies, antibiotic resistance, immune-suppression, and cancer.
The Trouble with GM Maize
Though authoritative scientific reports in the U.S. on the health risks of genetically modified foods are hard to find, there is plenty of finger pointing going on by environmental action groups like Greenpeace. Thankfully, there is good science on GM foods happening in other countries. In fact, based on European studies, Cuba prohibits growing or importing genetically modified foods crops. One type of maize, called MON 810, is the only GM food cultivated commercially in the E.U. The European Commission says E.U. countries need more flexibility to decide if GM crops are grown.
Two lines of GM maize expressing the gene of Phosphinothricin Acetyltransferase Enzyme (PAT-PROTEIN) showed significant differences in fat and carbohydrate content compared with non-GM maize. GM maize expressing PAT-PROTEIN may present health risks associated with abnormal weight gain.
Three GM maize strains (NK 603, MON 810, MON 863) were found to cause toxicity to the kidneys and liver, and had adverse effects in the heart, adrenal glands, and spleen. France, Germany, Austria, and Greece have banned MON 810.
Since GM maize products are mainly found in processed foods like crackers and chips, and in corn oils, it’s relatively easy to avoid eating them if you choose fresh, organic foods, and heritage varieties of fresh corn.
In Praise of Healthy Maize
There’s something magical about eating according to ancestral traditional diets. For many years, I conducted fieldwork among the Zapotec Indians of Oaxaca, in the highlands of Southern Mexico—the birthplace of maize. One of my primary contacts, a young Zopotec man, moved to Mexico City to start a small transport business shuttling workers from home to factory.
Instead of his usual daily routine of hard manual labor and simple traditional foods, he was now sitting all day driving a minivan while drinking sugary sodas and eating high-fat foods. Instead of handmade corn tortillas made from heritage maize, he ate GM corn tortillas.
Within a year he had gained over 150 pounds. His cholesterol was over 300 and his fasting glucose (blood sugar) was close to 200. Almost overnight, he had become an obese diabetic. The cure was to return to his village, eat the traditional diet, work daily in the maize and bean fields, and drink a wild crafted herbal tea provided by the village curandera. In three months, his glucose was below 120 and his cholesterol was approaching normal. Within five months, his blood tests were not only in the desirable range, they hit optimal numbers, and he had returned to his normal weight.
Most of my fieldwork is now in Peru where there are many varieties of corn. The national drink is chica morada, a beverage made from purple corn, fruit, and spices. An authentic “super food,” it contains a powerful antioxidant anthocyanin called C3G. Purple corn also has anti-inflammatory and cancer fighting activity.
Grow Your Own
Try growing your own heritage corn. As a kid growing up on a farm in New England, I ate ripe corn raw on the stalk. The stems, resembling cane stalks, contain sweet water and can be chewed like sugar cane. When cooking corn on the cob, my mother brought the water to boil in a huge pot, and I ran into the cornfield to pick a bushel that we quickly shucked, and threw in the boiling water for a few minutes. This flash boiling preserved all the sweetness as well as the nutrients.
Maize is deficient in two essential amino acids: lysine and tryptophan, making it a poor protein food. However, when combined with beans, also an American native food, the two become a balanced source of carbohydrates with a full profile of essential amino acids.
Be Your Own GM Watch Dog
U.S. food labeling does not require the labeling of GM products. Some states are voting to change that. For now, you have to read, ask, and check online. The “farm-to-fork” movement is great, but make absolutely sure they use non-GM seeds, and preferably that growing fields are not near GM cornfields that can spread GM genes on the wind through cross-pollination.
Commercial corn tortillas are usually from GM maize and contain too much of the wrong kind of fats, and are loaded with preservatives. Look for non-GM blue corn tortillas. They’re not as soft and flexible, and take more time to cook, but you’ll soon get the knack. Serve them like they do in old Mexico with a plate of chilies, organic beans cooked with the herb epazote, and a salsa of fresh, organic tomatoes.
For more information:
Tracking the Ancestry of Corn Back 9,000 Years
A Comparison of the Effects of Three GM Corn Varieties on Mammalian Health
True Food App
The Potential Health Benefits of Purple Corn
How to Make Chica Morada
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Picture courtesy Dr. Williams.