Corn: the hidden Allergen in your Food and Drink (and Where to Find it)

When I wrote last year on how a maize allergy almost killed my wife, it was just the beginning of her journey. Since then she (we) have had to check every single item of food and drink that she has consumed and have often been shocked how often the cheap bulking agent corn is used by manufacturers. Eating out is often impossible or restricts here to a basic chicken breast and salad meal, and a buffet or fast food is an absolute impossibility.

For those who don’t know, corn is a common name for maize. It’s used mainly as a bulking agent or thickener in food and drinks and has recently become widely favoured as a cheaper alternative to wheat and barley due to its low cost.


Corn ‘hidden’ in foods

As time as gone on, we’ve discovered just how common corn is, and it seems that the more food that comes from the USA to the UK, the more prevalent stuffing foods with maize has become. From Haribo sweets to lager, corn is so prevalent that eating is often a minefield.


Corn is often used to make fried foods crisper

Corn (in particular cornflour) is being used more frequently in kitchens to help make fried food more crispy. Sweet potato chips, for example, are often tossed in cornflour being being fried. This makes eating out very difficult for people who suffer from a corn allergy.

In addition, companies such a McDonald’s and KFC use corn products in some of their food but sadly don’t make this information available publicly on their website (making it impossible for someone who has a maize allergy to even thing about tucking in to a greasy bucket).


Corn is now featured in some food oils

As pressure is placed on food manufacturers to look for ‘healthier’ plant-based fats, corn is increasingly being added to frying oil. This means that it’s almost impossible to eat anything cooked in oil unless you can be 100% certain of the ingrediatns of the oil. If it doesn’t say, stay away!


Cornflour is the most common thickener for sauces and soups

Check the ingredients of a sauce or soup and there’s a high probability that it will contain cornflour, use to thicken the product and bulk it up.

Even foods labelled as ‘breaded’ can contain corn

During the summer my wife and I rushed home from the shops to get ready for one of our favourite activities, watching Formula One. She quickly made herself a ham and tomato sandwich and we sat down to watch the race. A couple of minutes later my wife suddenly jumped up and ran to the kitchen because she’d forgotten to check the ingrediatns of the ham. Sure enough, the breaded ham contained corn in the ingredients. Panicking, she got her epipen ready and downed some prescription antihistamines. She only had one small mouthful of the ham but even that was enough to give her mild effects. Thankfully she didn’t go into full anaphylaxis on this occasion but it was a close shave.


Corn starch

Corn starch is the starch extracted from corn, obtained from the endosperm of the kernel. You’ll find this used where a thickener is required, usually in soups and sauces. It’s also the same stuff that children use to make ‘Oobleck’ (a non-Newtonian fluid is a fluid that does not follow Newton’s Law of Viscosity).


Modified Maize Starch

Modified Maize Starch is similar to corn startch, however, it has been chemically treated. It’s used as a thickener, but also a stabilizer or emulsifier.


Corn Syrup

Corn syrup is made from the starch of corn (maize) and contains varying amounts of maltose and higher oligosaccharides depending on the grade. It’s used in as a thickener, sweetener and to keep some foods fresher for longer. Find it in processed foods, sweets, soft drinks and even fruit drinks.


Xanthan Gum

Xanthan Gum is a thickener and binder which can be produced using different ingredient, but which has been produced more recently using corn. Anyone with a corn allergy should try to avoid Xanthan Gum (although some people with corn allergies find they can tolerate it in small amounts).


Quality foods are often safest

Generally (but not always), quality food items tend to be the safest foods for those with a corn allergy to eat. This is because they higher quality the food, the less change there is that it’s been bulked up with corn starch or corn products.


Corn is even used in lager

Some lagers have maize in them, which some brewers use to adjust the flavour of the beer, meaning that those people allergic to corn need to steer clear of any lager unless the ingredients are explicitly listed.


Allergy -v- Intolerance

One of the biggest drivers for the turn towards using corn is that millions of people claim to have a gluten allergy, which has resulted in manufacturers and restaurants turning to corn as a gluten free alternative. The reality is that many of those people who claim to have a gluten allergy have never had this confirmed by a professional. It’s actually more likely that they have an intolerance, rather than an allergy. This means that the real number of people suffering a gluten allergy is actually lower than numbers would suggest.

Sadly, this means that corn is becoming more prevalent in foodstuffs which is slowly reducing the number of products Corn Allergy sufferers can eat.


Corn should be a recognised top allergen

Currently there are 14 regulated allergins on the Food Standards Authority list. It’s time corn was added to this list before someone is killed. The current 14 allergens are:

  • eggs
  • milk
  • fish
  • crustaceans (for example crab, lobster, crayfish, shrimp, prawn)
  • molluscs (for example mussels, oysters, squid)
  • peanuts
  • tree nuts (namely almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, cashews, pecans, brazils, pistachios, macadamia nuts or Queensland nuts)
  • sesame seeds
  • cereals containing gluten (namely wheat (such as spelt, Khorasan wheat/Kamut), rye, barley, oats, or their hybridised strains).
  • soya
  • celery and celeriac
  • mustard
  • lupin
  • sulphur dioxide and sulphites (at concentration of more than ten parts per million)


Remember this when avoiding corn:

If it doesn’t say, stay away!


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