The corn-free challenge: My week without corn

by Marion on August 22, 2012

My week-long corn-free challenge is at an end, and these are the things I learned.

The food was the easy part. That’s the first thing I want to say about my week trying to live without corn.

During my corn-free challenge, I did have to avoid a lot of food items. Among the foods I did not eat were chicken, pork or beef unless we were assured it was grass-fed and grass-finished. I didn’t eat eggs, milk and most cheeses because they came from animals that had eaten corn.

We did not go out for our usual pleasant Sunday breakfast with my sister, which is always a festival of car rides, eggs, bacon and syrup. There was no pizza, no convenient frozen lunches, no yogurt, no ice cream. I drank my morning tea without the usual milk or Splenda. I completely shunned my office’s Friday morning breakfast in order to avoid, you know, that one glorious horn-shaped pastry, all buttery and flaky, filled with cheese and dusted with powdered sugar. It is a crazy wonderful bomb of corn in several forms. I usually limit myself to about a third of one, and man I miss it.

When it came to any processed food, I carefully studied the labels. We are great readers of labels anyway, but this was a closer level of scrutiny. Everyone knows about high-fructose corn syrup. But processed foods are delivery systems for corn—for instance, in the form of lactose, maltose, maltodextrin and sorbitol. Of course, cornstarch. Vinegar. Both regular white vinegar and malt vinegar, in the US, are usually made from corn, and both are added to numerous prepared foods (not just condiments, either—I found vinegar in the ingredient list on a “macaroni and cheese” meal in our freezer.) A bewildering array of sweeteners, too: if it is listed as fructose, glucose or invert sugar, it may well come from corn. As I noted last week, iodized salt contains corn in the form of the maltose used to bind the iodine to the salt. (This week we used kosher salt instead, but if you’ve ever seen someone with goiter you will understand that this is not a long-term strategy.) With a very few exceptions, most packaged foods were examined and rejected. It was pretty surprising sometimes. For instance, not all hummus is alike—many brands contain corn in the form of lactose,“citric acid” or other additives.

But in fact we ate very well. We had fish, sautéed in olive oil and tarragon; we had grass-fed beef; we had spicy lentil soup; I made chili using grass-fed beef; we had lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. My quest was a lot easier because it is summer and a glory of produce is appearing in markets around us right now; and also my quest was easier because, while we do work in offices, we have the time to shop (and question people in stores) and cook. When we wanted meat, we went to Butcher and Larder (on the El) and bought the lovely grass-fed hamburger I used for the chili, and Terry walked to the Mariano’s near his office for grass-fed beef steaks. (And I also want to thank Terry, who did not have to join me in this week-long experiment, but did, with great enthusiasm and insight.) For breakfast, I would have some oatmeal (without milk) or a handful of nuts and some fruit. For lunch, I would have things like fresh fruit, an avocado, a little tuna, peanut butter, some Triscuits (wheat, salt), some fruit or a salad.

Avoiding corn in food was only part of the corn-free challenge. We avoided corn in our transit too. Corn is used for the ethanol that is blended into gasoline, in the manufacture of tires and in the manufacture of the ceramics on spark plugs. We haven’t taken the car out in a week now, nor have we ridden in anyone else’s car. Because of the tire manufacture issue, I also did not use my bike. Luckily, we live in a fairly walkable neighborhood and are already accustomed to our commute to the office, which is a walk of about a mile and then a 20-minute El ride.

The combination of walking and riding the El worked well, but I can see how it could get old. Chicago is, at best, kind of convenient. On Saturday, we took care of all our errands via walking and mass transit. In terms of time, tackling the errands we needed to do this weekend probably did not take much longer than driving would have—Chicago traffic is awful on Saturdays. But there were some stores we simply did not go to because they are just a bit too far of a walk—or not aligned with other errand stops—and it was a very sunny day, and there was a great deal of trudging and schlepping. We set out full of enthusiasm, but when we got home from all of this going to and fro, I was just worn out.

But eating more mindfully and not driving the car for a week were not really bothersome. The most difficult things to give up were in the realm of personal care. Cosmetics, hygiene products, cleaning products, medications.  How clean did I want to be? And how groomed? Shampoo has corn derivatives in several forms—for instance, decyl glucoside, a gentle surfactant that even turns up in baby shampoo. My favorite shampoo has three corn derivatives. Sunblock, face powder, deodorant, eye shadows, lipstick: corn, corn, corn, corn, corn. I can see why a corn product would be in my face powder, but why does my hair conditioner contain caramel?

I don’t particularly wear a lot of makeup, so the corn in lipstick, eye pencils and eye liners and blush did not affect the challenge. But where I really started to fall off the wagon was with the shampoo and mascara, because vanity (and also, hygiene). My first failure to meet the challenge came with bathing. Yes, technically I could have gone a week without, say, a shampoo. But seriously, a week without washing my hair? No one wants to see that—no one. I succeeded in not putting on mascara for several days, but that ultimately made me more self conscious and nervous than heck. This was my second failure to meet the challenge. My personal grooming failed the corn-free challenge (but my colleagues and Terry were the real winners here).

The next failure was with medications. Many pharmaceuticals, from aspirin to xanax, use corn starch as a binder and filler, and many also include other corn derivatives. Zein, the chemical that makes time released medications happen, is made from corn. I take one prescription drug, and I kept taking it.

I also could not meet the corn-free challenge in a more elemental way. I came home on Monday night, and when I walked into the apartment, I felt like a complete idiot. Because just coming home, I was using corn.  It is in the drywall, in the paint on the wall, in the cat food that our small associates were eagerly expecting. It’s in the newspaper I picked up on the way home, in the glue on the flaps of the envelopes in the mailbox, in the batteries in the remote control and the flashlight. Which brings me to my second point: I really could not cut corn entirely out of my life, even if I were to give up mascara and medicines and wash my hair with, I don’t know, beach sand. And you can’t give it up either. The only way we’d be able to avoid it would be to move to 1958.

And this is the third thing I want to say. As a recent Stanford University study noted, in the first round of global warming, farmers in North America got a pass. In the rest of the world, climate change has been pushing down crop yields and pushing up prices for decades. But North America has been lucky. This year, with the failure of the corn crop, we see our luck ending.

Corn is in our daily life, at the cellular level. When the planet is too hot and dry for us to grow it, what will replace it? More importantly, in a hotter, drier world, should we use arable land and scarce water to power our cars, paint our faces?

We can decide to step away from the corn, and start finding alternatives now, or we can wait and have the decision made for us, by a hotter, drier, hungrier world.

Quick note: You can read last week’s post about the corn-free challenge here.


{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

randi August 22, 2012 at 5:44 pm

Sounds like an awful week to me! I guess I really like my conveniences.
It seems to be even more prevalent than I thought. I would have caved fairly soon into this experiment.
I still can’t decide whether corn is a good thing or bad thing over all.
If we find an alternative source to replace corn’s uses it would probably come with it’s own mixed bag of concerns.

Thanks Marion for suffering to educate us!

The Rowdy Chowgirl August 22, 2012 at 6:12 pm

Fascinating! I’ve been eagerly awaiting the results of your experiment. There are so many foods and products here that I never would have thought of containing corn. The milk and cheese should have been obvious, I guess, but somehow that wasn’t on my radar.

Ronnie Ann August 22, 2012 at 6:45 pm

Really enjoyed reading about your corn-free week, Marion. (Love that Terry joined in – as if you could have stopped him.) I join Randi in thanking you “for suffering to educate us”. I probably could have gone about half a day max now that I read about the things I never would have considered.

Curious as to what was the first corn-y food thing that you couldn’t wait to let back in?

kitchenriffs August 22, 2012 at 7:50 pm

Really interesting post. I look at labels all the time for food things, but rarely for other everyday items. Amazing how corn has become such an integral part in so many goods.

Anita August 22, 2012 at 8:55 pm

I wondered how lack of one plant (the potato) could wipe out a million people. This gives me an idea. Scary.

blakeArt August 23, 2012 at 2:20 am

Amazing week – and of course it seems easier to do than in the actual doing, Marion. And I love the thoughtful ending. As a civilization, we have to force ourselves to think outside of the box on these issues. We have to evolve into knowing that “we have live lighter on this earth” is a phrase I’ve heard lately. Kudos to you and Terry for making it happen and making us think.

jeri August 23, 2012 at 2:41 am

I know from reading your blog, that you do your research, but it’s difficult to wrap my mind around corn being endangered. In the North Atlantic region, we are having the best corn summer in many, many years. It is more plentiful, cheap and delicious than it’s been since I was a kid (and that was some time ago). I admire what you’re doing, but to not eat corn this summer, where I live, would only hurt my local farmers. I try to be a good citizen of the planet, but what’s a person to do? I already take public transportation, but not sure I could give up mascara and shampoo. Please keep doing what you do.

Marion August 23, 2012 at 4:01 am

Thank you, everyone, for paying attention.

Randi, it actually was not suffering at all, and was very interesting. But it did make me think about the many who have had no choice in their diets. And I would not call corn a good or evil thing—the core thing, for me, is that it has become so systemic.

Thanks, Chowgirl. The thing is, I am sure that I still did not find out about plenty of things.

Ronnie, the answer is a festival of dairy: 1. ice cream (spumoni!) 2. Cheerios with milk 3. a glass of buttermilk 4. another glass of buttermilk—well, half a glass. After that I settled down into my normal.

Anita, exactly. Thank you.

blakeArt, it was fascinating and is making us both look at many things differently. One of the takeaways for me is that change may start at the personal level, but individuals on their own can’t possibly do enough.

jeri, I am not saying we should boycott corn or give up our shampoo. This was an experiment to understand how much we depend on corn. There are a few pockets where the crop is being wonderful, and it sounds like you live in one of those areas untouched by the drought. But across most of the US, the corn crop this year has failed; the soy crop is also badly damaged. First, their prices are soaring, and we are now facing the possibility of desperate hunger and drastic social upheaval in parts of the world dependent on US food imports. Second, these massive failures, and weather-related crop failures elsewhere in the world, are signs of accelerating climate change. It is affecting all of us, and now what?

jeri August 23, 2012 at 4:32 am

Oh, Marion, I hope you didn’t take my comment the wrong way. I knew there was a drought problem in the mid-west, but I didn’t realize how serious it was. I also knew that corn was being used for altenative energy sources, but wasn’t aware that it was endangering it as a crop. For now, the best way I know to help is to support my local farmers, it’s a noble profession. I look forward to your thoughtful posts. You are both clearly committed and I admire what you’re doing.

Pat D August 23, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Wow, Plummy, you are one trooper. Very interesting. Glad you were willing to fall off the wagon and take a shower and wash your hair. The entire office appreciates it!!

Marion August 24, 2012 at 3:26 am

jeri, please don’t be upset – I was not mad! We all are trying to support our local farmers, who were already under terrible stress before this began. I am always happy to see you here.

Plummy, I may spend most of the day plotting in the batcave, but hey, respect.

Terry B August 24, 2012 at 4:34 am

Hi, this is Terry chiming in. First, I didn’t strictly abide by the corn-free rules last week. Whenever it would affect what Marion was doing, I did—I didn’t buy any ingredients for our meals that would involve corn in any way, for instance, including driving to get them—but I had my occasional cheats on my own. As one example, the spumoni that had entered our house for the last hurrah before the week began remained a treat for me throughout the week. When Marion finally celebrated with it at the end of the challenge, she was impressed by how much it had diminished.

Jeri, it’s not that corn is endangered by our use of it for alternative fuel; it’s that our way of life is endangered by our dependence on a single crop. It doesn’t matter even that it’s corn. It could be bananas or daisy petals. Any agricultural monoculture is dangerous, is highly vulnerable. Anita’s reference above to the Irish potato famine is a stark reminder. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what agribusiness and the government have promoted for years. And even discounting non-edible uses of corn, the vast majority of it doesn’t end up on tables as food—ears of corn, creamed corn and such. It ends up as an ingredient in negligibly healthy packaged goods or as feed for the pigs, chickens and cows we eat. Farmers ought to be supported in their efforts to grow food, things that people cook and put on their dinner tables. The further we get from that, the more health and environmental problems we create. One way to support farmers is exactly what you’re doing, Jeri—and we are too. Shopping at farmers markets and buying food from the people who grow it and cooking and eating it. Even the delicious ears of corn.

Shauna August 28, 2012 at 5:38 am

Interesting. I was in Iowa this summer in the middle of, well, to put it bluntly, corn. Every which way.

I had not thought of its wide spread use until I read about your week’s challenge. My eyes are now open!

Leah Marie, Unpunctuated August 28, 2012 at 6:27 pm

So, I just commented on your last post about this, and then looked at the date. I’m glad to have discovered your blog after the week is over so I could see both the beginning and the end. As someone who is allergic to corn, it’s just nice for me to have people talk about how much if it is everywhere. I don’t think corn is necessarily evil (although my body does) but I don’t think we need more awareness about what we’re putting in, around, and near our bodies.


Marion August 29, 2012 at 12:03 am

Thanks, Shauna! Did you ever see that drawing Laurel made for some school project? The kids were supposed to make a drawing that showed how their family got to where they were living, and she drew a picture of a truck driving past a corn field, rows and rows of corn, because that’s what she remembered of our move.

Leah Marie, welcome. I am glad you commented – one thing I did not touch on (and had never thought about before) was that there are people with corn allergies, and they have to live this every day. You don’t have a choice, ever, and have to be vigilant all the time. And I completely agree with you that we should pay more attention to what we are consuming and living in – a lot more attention. Thank you again.

Tre March 26, 2013 at 12:14 am

I was surprised to come across this blog in one of my many corn free searches. Many people…especially Americans are finding themselves in just this situation…like me they are allergic to corn. Some are born with it. Others like myself have developed the allergy and it worsens day by day due to continuing corn exposure. I don’t think people realize how much corn they are really exposed to and what it can do to one’s immune system. I wish more people would try the corn free challenge :)

Kathy June 29, 2016 at 4:03 pm

Hi Tre. I just came upon this, too, and I, too, have a corn allergy. The biggest problem that we have is that the medical community is not aware and does not care where corn is hiding out. They pose a real risk to anyone with a serious allergy to corn.

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