Out of all of the foods that make me sick, corn is the hardest to safeguard against. It's easy to avoid whole corn, tortilla products, cornmeal, and the likes because you can see with your own two eyes that something has corn in it. Cornstarch, dextrose (once you know it's a corn product), and high fructose corn syrup are easy to spot as long as you have access to an ingredient list.
But its corn derivatives that are called by a different name or foods you'd never think would have a corn byproduct in them that are the hardest to track down. This list from the Gluten Free Society is the most comprehensive I've seen about corn products - please read so you can understand just how easily it can hide in our food.
And why being vigilent for corn contamination is driving me nuts.
Before my diet change, we were always good about buying whole food products. My rule was if I couldn't pronounce it or I wouldn't add it to a dish while cooking it at home, it shouldn't be in my food at all. I certainly don't have decyl polyglucose or BHT sitting in my spice rack, do you?
But what was a simple rule before is now a matter of my health and quality of life. Even "micro" amounts of corn products can cause stomach distress, a runny nose, and a slew of sneezing spells. And feeling a touch under the weather affects my outlook, mood, and productivity. My right and desire for a healthy life outweigh anything my taste buds have to say.
The problem is that corn byproducts are everywhere - they lurk in innocent-looking food, keep good company with organic products, and commit foul deeds under another name. It's a Where's Waldo every time I eat.
I basically need to assume that corn is in a food until I confirm otherwise.
This journey has really been eye opening. Recent surprises that had me doing a double take:
- White vinegar - Most people are startled to learn vinegar is fermented from corn. It's not like there's a vinegar tree you tap. Just think of how many condiments use vinegar: barbeque sauces, ketchup, mustard, hot sauce, sweet and sour sauce, and salad dressings. I never cared for pickles or sauerkraut, but those are swimming in corn too.
- Spice mixes - Lawry's, Cavenders, McCormick blends, and those packets of taco or ranch seasoning generally have cornstarch or dextrose in them. Example: I love lemon pepper seasoning and had been using Cavenders on a weekly basis. I only last week turned over the container and found to my horror three corn products in the ingredients list: cornstarch, dextrose, and hydrolyzed corn soy protein - ack!
- Virtually any medication, including vitamins - It's probably a good thing that I'm not a fan of pills in the first place, but even a simple capsule of Vitamin D or an aspirin will have cornstarch or corn oil. Dextrose is also a key ingredient in saline IV drips. Those vitamins added to your dairy products? They can be sourced or bonded with corn and there's no way of knowing (other than to hound the company).
- Shredded cheese - Most brands use cornstarch for anti-caking. I was short on time the other day, grabbed a bag of shredded cheese, and got halfway across the store before I thought to check "just in case" and there it was, listed right after cheese. Another example of how you have to question everything.
- Pop - Even if a pop is made of real cane sugar, like those expensive ones in the natural foods section, it can still contain corn from citric acid and caramel coloring. Goodbye Sierra Mist and Pepsi/Coke in glass bottles.
- Processed meats - Since I can't eat sandwiches anymore, this one doesn't affect me too much, but many deli meats have corn syrup or caramel coloring. Yeah, that "honey" ham? That's corn syrup. Some inferior brands of bacon will have caramel coloring added to them as well.
- Whipped cream - The chemical concoction known as Cool Whip aside, even a brand that uses real cream (like Reddi-wip) has corn syrup in it. If I want whipped cream, I'd better make it myself.
- Candy - If it's not solid chocolate, it's a no. I can manage a plain Hershey's bar, but hard candies, boxed chocolates, and all other candy bars are off limits, largely due to corn syrup or invert sugar. I miss M&Ms.
- Broth (chicken, beef, vegetable) - Doesn't matter whether it's Swanson's, Rachel Ray, Emeril, Aldi's, or one from the organic section, virtually all of them have dextrose, cornstarch, or monosodium glutamate.
- Vanilla - Vanilla bean alone is corn-free, but vanilla extract is typically 35% alcohol. Grain alcohol. Get the picture?
There is not a day that goes by that I don't have to think about the safety of my food.
The hardest thing is that I'm still testing just how far my corn sensitivity goes. I know for sure cornstarch, caramel coloring, and dextrose definitely produce a reaction. But I haven't cleared white vinegar yet. I don't know if taking an aspirin does anything. Or if potatoes fried in corn oil are a problem. I'm hoping I can keep vanilla too, but I don't know for sure. Do I need to worry about packaging and plastics made out of corn? The wax on my fruit? Corn in my toothpaste?
The questions are endless. It's one big science experiment as I subject myself, intentionally or by accident, to small amounts of corn products waiting for a reaction that may or may not develop.
To be honest, all of this has changed my attitude about food. At present, a lot of the joy has been lost because I have to expend so much energy and time making sure I don't get sick from food.
There is not a single meal that I don't prepare from scratch and by hand. It sounds so lovely, right? Until you begin to count up the hours I spend grocery shopping, menu planning, cooking, and cleaning each and every day. Let's not forget that I have a full-time job. While I enjoy my kitchen, some nights I long for the easy out - the frozen pizza, the bowl of fried rice, the rotisserie chicken - but they're not an option.
Going out to eat used to be one of my favorite activities; now it verges on stressful and depressing if I can't confirm what's in a dish. The number of restaurants I can eat at is dismal - take out every fast food, chain, pizza, Mexican, and sandwich shop in sight. The simple act of wanting ice cream sets off a research session to see what might be available. Traveling requires me to vet restaurants well in advance. There is no spontaneity with swinging into a new place. At this rate, I almost need a smartphone for all the research I need to do.
Potlucks and birthday treats at work? Forget about it. Going into someone else's home and having to inflict them with my diet? Terrifying. Even weddings are a problem. We've got one coming up soon and I've had to email the bride to be put in touch with catering to see what I can eat. I'm a problem guest now.
And let's not even broach the subject of GMOs, organic food, and sustainably produced meat. It's important, it's on my to-do list, but I Can't. Handle. One. More. Thing. I am overloaded with this diet change already and the thought of having to make more switches is not something I can deal with at this point.
Right now, I fully recognize that I'm in a transitional period. I'm only a matter of months into this diet change and I'm still adjusting, figuring out my strategy, and finding a new normal. But when I think about how I must eat, words like rigid, anxious, endless, restrictive, limiting, and extreme come to mind.
I myself have many questions - is this a corn allergy or intolerance? Is there a genetic thing at play here? Is this the result of being born in the 80s and growing up in a chemical bath? The consequences of pesticide/fertilizer use and genetic modification? I had a dreadful bout of illness from a virus in 2005 - is that the culprit? Or have I always had this and the symptoms just manifested differently or worsened over time?
I think one of the biggest issues with a grain-free lifestyle is how isolating it can be. Particularly since I don't have an "official" test from the medical community to document my intolerance, some people can be dismissive. Few people understand it, and some are even threatened by it. Particularly with living in the Midwest and smack dab in the middle of the Corn Belt, what I'm doing is also very counterculture. Trust me, I'm not out to take away your corn on the cob or your bowl of pasta.
That being said, I know what I'm doing for my health is the best decision. Every time I can push myself harder when I exercise, every pound I lose, every day that I don't have a stomach ache or sinus weirdness, every compliment I receive, every encouraging Facebook comment fuels me to tough this out. It's your understanding and kindness that are helping me to sail through this adjustment period buoyed by support.
New waters ahead. There is no going back.