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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. Although we often associate corn with the color yellow, it actually comes in host of different varieties featuring an array of different colors, including red, pink, black, purple, and blue. Although corn is now available in markets year-round, it is the locally grown varieties that you can purchase during the summer months that not only tastes the best but are usually the least expensive.

You can get health-supportive antioxidant benefits from all varieties of corn, including white, yellow, blue, purple and red corn. But recent research has shown the antioxidant benefits from different varieties of corn actually come from different combinations of phytonutrients. In the case of yellow corn, it's the antioxidant carotenoids leading the way, with especially high concentrations of lutein and zeaxanthin. In the case of blue corn, it's the anthocyanins. There's one particular hydroxybenzoic acid in purple corn - protocatechuic acid - that's also been recently linked to the strong antioxidant activity in this corn variety.

We correctly think about corn as a good source of fiber. Corn is a food that gives us plenty of chewing satisfaction, and its high ratio of insoluble-to-soluble fiber is partly the reason. Past researchers have not been clear, however, about the ability of corn fiber to nourish our lower digestive tract. When you look at foods as a whole, they contain many different types of fiber, and when certain types of fiber reach the lower part of our large intestine (especially certain types of soluble fiber) they can be metabolized by intestinal bacteria into short chain fatty acids (SCFAs). This process not only helps support healthy populations of friendly bacteria in our large intestine, but also provides a direct supply of energy (in the form of SCFAs) to the cells that line our large intestine. With this benefit of this extra SCFA energy supply, our intestinal cells can stay healthier and function at a lower risk of becoming cancerous. 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 SCFAs.

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.

Perhaps no other food has been more closely identified with the Americas than corn. Both the Mayan and the Olmec civilizations that date back to 2000-1500 BC in what is now Mexico and Central America (commonly called Mesoamerica) had not only adopted maize as a staple food in the diet but had also developed a reverence for maize that was expressed in everyday rituals, religious ceremonies, and in the arts. The first domestication of maize in Mesoamerica actually dates back even further, to 9000-8000 BC. Corn was equally valued by Native American tribes living in North America, although tribal wisdom about corn was largely ignored by European colonists in the 15th and 16th centuries AD.

By the time Columbus and other explorers arrived in North America, corn was already an integral part of Native American cuisine. However, many colonists ignored Native American traditions related to corn - including the pot ash tradition - and later fell victim to the vitamin B3 deficiency disease called pellagra. (When cooking corn and cornmeal, Native Americans had developed a practice of incorporating ash from the fire into the food, and the mineral mix in this ash increased the bioavailability of vitamin B3 from the corn. The addition of lime in the form of calcium hydroxide to tortillas still serves this purpose today.)

While the average U.S. adult does not share the reverence for corn that characterized the practices of Native Americans and indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica, there is still an amazing influence of corn on the U.S. diet.

Tips for Preparing Corn

Corn can be cooked either with or without its husk in a variety of different ways. If using the wet heat methods of boiling or steaming, make sure not to add salt or overcook as the corn will tend to become hard and lose its flavor. Or, they can be broiled in the husk. If broiling, first soak the corn in the husk beforehand.

Eat corn on the cob either just as is or seasoned with a little organic butter, olive oil or flaxseed oil, salt and pepper, nutritional yeast or any other herbs or spices you enjoy.
Healthy sauté cooked corn with green chilies and onions. Served hot, this makes a wonderful side dish.
Enjoy a cold salad with an ancient Incan influence by combining cooked corn kernels, quinoa, tomatoes, green peppers and red kidney beans.
Use polenta (a type of cornmeal) as a pizza crust for a healthy pizza.
Add corn kernels and diced tomatoes to guacamole to give it extra zing.
Adding corn to soup, whether it chili or chowder, enhances the soup's hardiness, let alone its nutritional profile.


Epicurious' Great Corn page