By federal law, labels must warn consumers if a food product contains at least one of the eight allergens responsible for more than 90 percent of food allergies. Corn, however, isn’t among them. It isn’t judged to be a “major” food allergen.
So, for people with a corn allergy, food labels won’t alert them to the presence of their allergy-causing culprit. On their own, they’re left to track food products that contain corn or corn derivatives.
A petition circulating on Change.org calls on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require clear labeling of food products that have corn or corn derivatives. A mother with a child who recently was diagnosed with a corn allergy launched the petition, which had more than 8,900 supporters as of late July.
In the absence of mandated labeling, what’s a corn allergy sufferer to do?
Kathlena Rails, known as “The Allergy Chef,” has some advice.
Diagnosed four years ago with a corn allergy, Rails now goes to extreme lengths to steer clear of corn. For instance, she can’t drink most water. Why? The additives and disinfectants in drinking water can be derived from corn or a corn-based carrier might be used to help dissolve them, according to the Corn Allergy Girl website.
Here are four tips from Rails and others for coping with a corn allergy.
1. Avoid online groups that discuss corn allergies, especially groups on Facebook.
Get to know yourself and your own limits, as well as the facts, before you start poking around online to check out people’s opinions about corn allergies, Rails says.
“A lot of the ‘advice’ is poor and sometimes flat-out wrong. If you are new to a corn allergy, some of the advice is simply dangerous,” she says.
2. Educate yourself.
While tiptoeing around the minefield of bad advice online, look for trustworthy websites that can help you navigate the more than 200 products, including food and beverages, that have corn or corn derivatives.
The list of corn byproducts is stunning. According to Golisano Children’s Hospital at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York, that list includes:
- Corn flour
- Cornstarch, also appearing on labels as starch or vegetable starch
- Corn oil
- Corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup
- Free fatty acids
Keep in mind that this list is far from exhaustive. Lots of other corn byproducts are lurking in our food.
3. If you’re severely allergic to corn, source foods from trusted brands and make meals from scratch.
“Just about all food in one way or another can be sourced and made corn-free, but it won’t be easy,” Rails says.
Golisano Children’s Hospital says many health food stores stock corn-free foods, such as ketchup, mayonnaise and cereals.
Just as there are many corn byproducts, there are many foods that can contain corn and corn byproducts.
“Be sure to read all labels, and check with the manufacturer when in doubt,” Golisano Children’s Hospital recommends.
Among the foods you might come across that have corn or corn byproducts are:
- Baby food
- Canned vegetables
- Peanut butter
- Salad dressing
- Fruit juices and drinks
- Powered sugar
- Meat products such as hot dogs and sausage
- Soft drinks
- Snack foods
- Low-calorie sweeteners
- Canned and frozen berries
Once again, this is not a complete list, but it gives you a sense of just how prevalent corn byproducts are in our food.
4. Know the symptoms of a corn allergy.
The American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology says symptoms of a corn allergy develop when someone’s immune system becomes sensitized and overreacts after eating corn or foods containing corn-based ingredients, or even after being exposed to corn pollen.
The organization advises that a corn allergy can be difficult to detect. An allergy test can pinpoint whether someone has a corn allergy. AllergicChild.com says it’s dangerous to assume that someone’s allergy symptoms are being triggered by corn allergens.
Corn allergy symptoms include:
- Hives or skin rash
- Nausea, stomach cramps, indigestion, vomiting or diarrhea
- Stuffy or runny nose
- Anaphylaxis, a possibly life-threatening reaction that hinders breathing and can send the body into shock
Each year in the U.S., according to the federal Food and Drug Administration, it’s estimated that food anaphylaxis results in:
- 30,000 ER visits
- 2,000 hospitalizations
- 150 deaths
Rails says that if she were to consume food with corn or corn byproducts, her symptoms could include headache, tongue swelling, emotional and mental distress, drop in blood pressure and gastrointestinal problems.
The Corn Refiners Association, a trade group, says sensitivity to corn allergens can happen externally, through skin contact, or internally, through consumption or inhalation. Dermatitis and asthma are the most common symptoms of a corn allergy, the group says.
How common are corn allergies?
Corn allergies aren’t prevalent, Rails says. As many as 15 million Americans have food allergies, but a current breakdown of those who have corn allergies isn’t available.
The Corn Refiners Association says the presence of corn allergies in the U.S. population is “exceedingly low,” affecting less than 0.016 percent of Americans. However, that statistic comes from a 1950 study, so the percentage easily could have risen since then. A 2016 study of adult food-allergy patients in Pakistan found 1 percent were allergic to corn.
Among children in the U.S., the rate of food allergies in children rose from 3.4 percent in 1997 to 5.1 percent in 2011, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An estimated 6 million American children have food allergies.
“Sadly, over the past few years, I’ve watched the corn allergy diagnosis start to rise, especially in children,” Rails says. Not all of these allergies are severe, she adds, but sufferers “will all have a very long road ahead of them.”
That road is paved with the realization that there’s no medical cure for a corn allergy.
“The only treatment is to avoid all food products that contain corn or a corn derivative as an ingredient,” according to Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital.