Corn: New Worries About an Old Favorite

Despite being completely unnatural, hypoallergenic infant formulas are a critically needed feeding alternative for sensitive babies. But several years ago, I started to notice a problem -- and I suspected corn as the culprit.
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I am starting to worry about corn. It started a few years ago when I noticed allergic babies in my practice were beginning to react to the infant formulas designed for them. These specialty products are made from basic protein building blocks (amino acids) rather than pre-digested milk protein. Minimum digestive function is required to tolerate them. In addition, they lack the complex antigens that tend to set off immune reactions, so they were a dependable way to save the day (and baby).

The carbohydrate portion (about 55 percent) of specialty formulas is usually a corn derivative, such as corn syrup or solids. Yes, corn syrup is sugar, but babies cannot survive on the South Beach Diet and always look good in bikinis. They need a carbohydrate source. In mother's milk, the carbohydrate source is lactose. Some babies also have trouble digesting lactose, so specialty formula manufacturers prefer other carb sources.

Despite being completely unnatural, these formulas are a critically needed feeding alternative for sensitive babies. But several years ago, I started to notice a problem. At first, it was a case here and there, but soon a growing number of infants appeared who could not tolerate any commercial formula. One frantic mother sat in my office with a red, mottled baby who screeched through the entire hour appointment. When I asked how often she was distressed at this level, the exhausted mom replied, "23 hours a day." Several specialists and numerous formulas yielded the same distressed response.

I suspected corn. By 2009, most available corn was genetically modified (GM). Adults in my practice were also starting to report corn intolerance. Corn problems are particularly devastating to those with celiac disease. They already cannot eat gluten-based grains and depend on corn tortillas, popcorn and grits to take the place of bread and pasta. Now many of them reported feeling better skipping corn, too.

According to some clever, presumably non-agri industry supported scientists, the price for messing with genes is more reactive and problematic proteins. The safety of GM foods is still being debated elsewhere, though not in as much gory detail as it deserves. Clearly, a policy of playing with our food now and deciding if what we are doing is safe later is risky. Our collective history is littered with the dead bodies of those who paid the price for scientific arrogance or someone else's economic self-interest. Consequently, accepting assurances that ingesting food with inserted bacterial DNA is no different than eating the unadulterated stuff, from the very people who stand to gain from selling said food, could be hazardous to your health. When people started reporting symptoms from eating adulterated corn, I listened and blamed the GM process.

As is often the case, one does not know what one does not know. A study published earlier this year about bee colony collapse suggests a new wrinkle in corn land. Since 2006, honeybees have been dying at an alarming rate. Farmers need bees for crop pollination and if they keep dying at the current rate, there could be serious food production problems. Dr. Chenshen Lu from the Harvard School of Public Health has studied the colony collapse phenomenon. His research concerns the high-fructose corn syrup used to sustain bees over the winter. Specifically, his test target is imidacloprid, one of the world's most popular pesticides.

Beekeepers switched from honey to the cheaper high-fructose corn syrup for winterizing about the time that colony collapse disorder started. Most corn crops are sprayed with imidacloprid to control aphids and other common corn pests. As a result, bees are exposed to small amounts of imidacloprid through corn syrup. Lu set up a series of hives using corn syrup laced with different doses of imidacloprid and a control hive with imidacloprid-free corn syrup. The bee death toll in the hives exposed to even minute amounts of the pesticide was devastating. Fifteen of the 16 hives exposed to imidacloprid were completely wiped out.

Other studies concurred, and added a list of other symptoms that could rival any of the drug side effects read off at the end of TV commercials. Loss of navigational control, for example, sounds ominous. This also affects teenage drivers who cannot seem to get home on time, no matter when they claim to have left the party. In bee language, it means the worker bees cannot find their way home after collecting pollen.

Germany, France and Italy have all suspended some uses of imidacloprid because there does not seem to be any safe level for bees. Lu is quoted in the most recent issue of Psychology Today as saying that just like the bees in his study, "People may be unwittingly exposed to small amounts of imidacloprid that are subtly undermining human health."[1]

In my practice, the health effects are often subtle, making it extremely difficult to ascertain whether the problem is corn, pollutants, food adulterations, fabric softener, sunscreen additives or a high pollen count. The list of possible irritants is longer than the proposed Republican budget cuts. The problem is the loss of navigational control regarding food safety. Somehow we have completely lost our way.


[1] Nikhil Swaminathan, "Stealth Attack." Psychology Today, 3 Sept. 2012. Link. [See magazine for full article with quote.]

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