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Sunday, June 7, 2015

A Guide to Living with a Corn Allergy FAQs

For a long time, I thought we were eating corn free, but my daughter's eczema said otherwise.  The chapped and peeling skin on her face, the scars and scratches all over her body from her constantly clawing at herself in a futile attempt to make the itching stop, and the late night screaming all pointed to dietary problems that I wasn't even aware we had.  Add in all of her other allergies, and it was a non-stop, round the clock problem that had me wishing I could become anorexic so that I wouldn't have to deal with it anymore.  While eating corn didn't physically affect me, it created a parenting nightmare in terms of taking care of my daughter that turned me off from food completely, especially corn. 
 
You'd think that having a corn allergy would have a simple enough solution; just stay away from corn.  While that works for other foods, it almost never works for corn.  Anyone who has to deal with a corn allergy will tell you that being allergic to corn is about the most complicated thing you will encounter in your life.  Even after all of my research and efforts I still wouldn't say that we eat corn free.  We are corn lite at best and to really be corn free would take and exuberant amount of time an money; something that I just don't have.  Thankfully we can get away with being corn lite.  I don't know what I'd do if we weren't that lucky.

FAQs About Corn Allergies
(My attempt to simplify a really complicated allergy)

What is a corn allergy?

A corn allergy is basically the same thing as any other allergy.  It is an immune response that occurs when corn or something made from corn comes in contact with the body.  Much like other allergies, the symptoms can range from bloating, itchy, watery eyes, to rash, fever, vomiting, and even anaphylactic shock.  Some corn allergic people also report symptoms such as migraines, depression, anxiety, hyperactivity, and other mental health problems as a result of being corned.

How do I know if I have a corn allergy?

A corn allergy can be identified similarly to other allergies via a blood and/or skin test.  My daughter's allergy was identified by a chiropractor who does muscle testing and laser treatments for allergies.  Some with a corn allergy report that their allergy could not be identified by medical testing, but that they tried eliminating corn and felt better as a result. 

Why is a corn allergy so difficult to manage?

The biggest reason why a corn allergy is so difficult to manage is because corn is literally in everything.  It's in almost all prepackaged foods in the form of corn derivatives and/or cross contamination.  It's fed to the livestock that provide us with meat, eggs, and dairy.  It's in the sprays and washes used on fresh produce.  It's in medical supplies and medications, including vaccines.  It's in soaps, household cleaners, plastics, latex, fabrics, toilet paper, disposable diapers,  and pretty much anything else you can think of.  It's even in the air we breathe due to the ethanol used in gasoline and the enormous amount of corn we have growing on farmland at any given location at any given time.

Another reason why a corn allergy is so hard to manage is because it's been processed and changed into dozens of different derivatives, many of which are synthetically, and chemically processed to add flavor, texture, and shelf life to food.  It's not uncommon for a person who is allergic to corn to be ok with eating one corn derivative while another one will send them to the hospital with a severe reaction.  Most corn allergic people have no idea which derivatives are safe for them to consume and which aren't so we all just make it a point to avoid them all.  The same goes for certain brands of things.  One person can consume one brand of something with no problems while another cannot.  Some people react to all corn and corn derivatives.  This makes it very hard to try new things or even eat a balanced diet at times since most people with a corn allergy also suffer from other allergies and health problems as well.

Lastly, living with a corn allergy is very costly.  The non-corn version of many foods is usually double the cost of their corn containing counterparts.  This further limits people with corn allergies because many are on a budget and cannot afford to make a lot of corn free items a staple.  In our house, we eat a lot of beans and potatoes because they are cheap.

How can I avoid corn?

Avoiding corn is not easy.  To be truly corn free is almost impossible and takes a lot of time, money, and dedication.  People who are really sensitive cannot shop at traditional grocery stores and must rely on either growing their own food or local (and sometimes not local) farmers to provide the rest.  However, there are some things you can do/ look for to help ensure that you are not getting corned.  Disclaimer: none of these suggestions ensures that your food will be corn free so be sure to read labels, do research, ask questions, and trial carefully.
  • Grow your own food:  The only way to ensure that your food comes from somewhere safe is to grow it yourself.  If you have the space and the means to do so, you can also raise your own livestock on a diet that is not corn based.  Most livestock is not biologically engineered to eat corn anyway (especially cows) so you will be doing the animals a favor.  Be wary of store bought soil, however, as some of it is corny.
  • Buy local:  Many local farmers do not use the pesticides and washes on their produce that commercial farmers do.  They also tend to raise their livestock on a corn free or corn lite diet.  Being able to talk to the farmer directly is hugely helpful since they can tell you exactly what they use on the farm and some may even be willing to work with your allergies even if they do use corn products.  Plus you will be buying local and helping the environment which is a total win.
  • Look for labeling that is organic, Non-GMO, kosher, and foods that are free of added flavors, preservatives, and colors:  While this does not guarantee that your food will be free of corn or cross-contamination with corn, it will save you a lot of label reading.  Please note that labels that say no added artificial flavors, colors or preservatives are often corny.  You want the food that has none of that.
  • Avoid food with ingredients that you don't know what they are: If it sounds like an element off of the periodic table you had to memorize in 9th grade science, it probably came from corn.  Most ingredients that you can't pronounce and have no idea what they are are chemically synthesized in a lab.  Even if they don't come from corn, they aren't the healthiest thing to be eating and you probably want to avoid it anyway.  Fake science experiment food doesn't sound appetizing after you start really looking at ingredient labels.  Trust me, you'll get it after you've been doing it a while.   
  • Be mindful of vegan and gluten free foods: Don't get me wrong.  There are tons of fantastic vegan and gluten free foods out there that are safe for corn allergic people.  However, once traditional ingredients such as meat, dairy, and wheat start coming out, the corn products start going in as a replacement.  Just be sure to carefully read the labels on these and trial with caution.
  • Look for short ingredient labels:  Ever wonder why a store bought loaf of bread has an ingredient label that's half a page long and sounds like it was written in a foreign language?  Because all those extra ingredients are corn added to enhance the flavor, shelf life, texture, and nutrient density of the bread.  When avoiding corn, the shorter the ingredient list, the better.  Look for ingredients that are similar to those that you would use if you made the item at home.  For example, a homemade loaf of bread only has a few ingredients, therefore, the loaf of bread you buy at the store should also only have a few ingredients (and you should be able to easily identify all of them).  
  • When in doubt, make your own: This is by far the most frustrating thing about this allergy.  Making your own everything is time consuming, expensive, and even with the best of intentions, you will sometimes still fail at it, especially if you are using new ingredients that you've never tried before.  However, it still remains the best way to ensure that your food is safe for you.  This also applies to soap and other household products.
Can I eat at restaurants?
As a general rule, restaurants are not a good idea.  Pretty much every chain restaurant has corn in their food and the staff will not know what they are looking for in terms of helping you find and check food labels.  That being said however, some corn lite people can occasionally eat out.  Here are some options that might work for you:
  • Salad Bars (you will want to bring your own dressing)
  • Baked potato bars
  • Farm to table restaurants
  • Small, locally owned restaurants where the food is made from scratch and the chef can make modifications for you.
  • Chain restaurants where you can order a plain salad, plain fruits and veggies, and plain meat.
Some of our favorite eat out places are Whole Foods, Sweet Tomatoes, and Sizzler.

What about traveling?

Most corn allergic people pack and freeze their food and toiletries to take with them or ship in advance.  They try to stay in condos or hotels with kitchen access, and do a lot of research before they leave to ensure that they have a safe supply of water, emergency food, and toiletries.  Some of the restaurant suggestions mentioned above may also work for someone who is traveling.

How can I get corn free medication?

Corn free medication has to be compounded.  This can be tricky in the United States because you need both a prescription and a pharmacist who knows what they are doing.  Both of those can be hard to come by.  Compounded meds are usually not covered by insurance so it can also be expensive.  Most medication can be easily compounded but some cannot, including vaccines.  Talk to your healthcare provider to find something that will work for you.  You may need to speak to multiple healthcare providers since many are unfamiliar with the ingredients in medications.  Some herbal supplements are corn free and may work for you as well.  At our house, we usually go with the herbal supplements before we try other medications, but you should always do what works best for you.

Where can I get more information?
 
 
Corn Allergy Girl: A blog containing information about traveling, emergency room and medical advice, suggestions for possible safe products, and tips on everyday living with a corn allergy.
 
A list of corn free products (please note that even though these products do not have corn listed as an ingredient, they still might be cross contaminated with corn.  Do your research and trial carefully)