Corn Aliases: How The King Crop Hides In Everything You Eat

CornFirst, I want to apologize for my absence – I’ve been dealing with a family issue away from home and haven’t had the time or mental energy to post. I am happy to be back and gratefully anticipate your forgiveness (please?).

I spent last week following the Ashkenazi diet for the eight day celebration of Passover, the finer points of which were perfectly summed up by Sharon here. Each year for eight days, I eliminate any and all corn products from my diet and vow to carry this no-corn policy into the rest of the year’s eating. But eliminating corn-based additives is not as straightforward as skimming the ingredients list for the word corn. Many of these additives have names that do not give away their origins. Of course, unwanted corn primarily enters the diet through food processing, so the best and easiest course of action is to eliminate all processed foods. But in instances where processed food is unavoidable, a next best defense is familiarity with aliases for corn. And so, without further ado, several common , non-obvious corn-based additives to look out for:

Ascorbic acid

The Vitamin C used to fortify foods is almost always non-naturally occurring. Instead, it is synthesized from corn.

Amino Acids

We have all seen this vague ingredient. It makes me think of biology class, but it makes the Corn Refiner’s Association think of money!

Calcium lactate

A preservative used in baking powder, cheeses, chewing gum, antacids, cut fruit.

Calcium stearoyl

Emulsifier used in manufactured bread products such as bread loaves and tortillas

Citric acid

Preservative used in soft drinks and candies for the sour taste.

Crystalline fructose

A type of high fructose corn derivative found in artificially sweetened products.

Dextrin or Dextrose

A basic sugar with food preservation properties, dextrose is found in jams, candy and other sweetened foods. Additionally, it is the basis for fermentation of many antibiotics such as penicillin.

Ethyl maltol

This chemical compound smells of caramel and is thus used as an artificial flavor and fragrance that is used in food and beauty products, which means it is also absorbed into your body through your skin as perfume, lotion and soap.

Fumaric or Lactic acid

A preservative in sweets that sometimes offers a tart flavor, but can also be tasteless.


Commercially produced glucose is made from cornstarch, making it a processed processed food. (Processed²?)

Hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP)

HVP is a fermented corn biproduct that contains the more maligned acronymed ingredient, MSG (monosodium glutamate – a type of HVP). MSG has been implicated in migraines, among other maladies. HVP is used as a “flavor enhancer,” possibly in other flavored-down, corned-up processed items. (Processed³?)

Malt, Maltodextrin, Maltose or Maltol

The Malt-series food additives are absorbed by the human body at a rate parallel to glucose, which is to say rapidly. This rapid absorption leads to a rise and fall of glucose levels, which leads to increased hunger, which leads to eating more corn products. Yay!


A sweetener used for diabetic-friendly sweets, mannitol is also a common ingredient in chewing gum and breath mints (it provides that “cool” feeling). In higher doses, mannitol is used in children’s laxatives. (Needed in the first place, of course, because of a non-diversified diet of corn-based, refined carbohydrates.)


If your favorite cereal proclaims “Now With More Fiber!” on the box, it is probably thanks to this synthetic, soluble-fiber compound.


An emulsifier in foods, pharmaceuticals and beauty products.

Potassium gluconate

Often added as an antioxidant, this compound is commonly used as a sodium supplement.

Propylene glycol monostearate

An emulsifier that is used in food, pharmaceuticals and beauty products. Oh, and also in industrial solvents, anti-freeze coolants, plasticizers and pretty much any other carcinogen you can think of.


A synthetic Vitamin E, it is often sold as a supplement on its own although testing has demonstrated that humans do not absorb it as efficiently as naturally derived Vitamin E.

Xanthan gum

A very common thickening agent, xanthan gum is found in pretty much anything that requires emulsification such as salad dressing, ice cream, pasta sauce and bottled smoothies.

So, to tally this up, corn takes the place of our sugars, our salts, our starches, our fats, our remedies and our beauty treatments. While there is nothing intrinsically toxic about corn derivatives and their products, there is nothing nutritious about them either, despite health claims to the contrary. The pervasiveness of corn in the American diet promotes a homogeneous and environmentally hostile agriculture industry by relying on large-scale unicrop farms.

When we eat this much corn, we not only discourage genetic diversity among crops, we also bankrupt our bodies of the nutrients we require. But, more sinister than this, these synthetic foods trick our bodies into thinking that we are getting the nutrients from foods that they mimic. When we drink a lime soda, our body expects Vitamin C because of the tart taste and asorbic acid, but we also cannot process this synthetic asorbic acid (“Vitamin C”) with the efficiency of that found in say, a lime. Our brain asks us to continue drinking the soda, waiting for the nutrient. Instead, we get several hundred calories from corn-based sugars and no fiber with which to absorb the sugar as we would if we ate the lime. It is a deeply cynical business model that renders basically all industrial food companies into corn pushers.

Note: A reader brought up a concern about the factual accuracy of referring to chemical compounds that are made from corn as “corn-based.” From a scientific standpoint, he is right. Let’s call it “corn-derived,” shall we?

To be fair, the reader’s discomfort with the terminology points to a conflation I made that I should correct: there are both health concerns and political concerns with eating compounds made from corn. The health concerns do not relate to corn, the plant, but instead to the prevalence of synthetically-derived nutrients and homogeneous eating (any scientist knows the value of diversity for overall health…), while the political (and environmental) concerns relate to corn, specifically – or, more accurately, the corn industrial complex.

A few of the nutrients listed above are essential to human survival, but their presence as supplements in all of our groceries is not essential to human survival. Please do not avoid amino acids, just ponder why they are additives in your breakfast cereal. It is a falsehood that all nutrients – those from a lab and those from nature – are created equal. Any scientific claim that a synthetic or unnaturally isolated nutrient is as valuable as the same nutrient in the context of a whole food is woefully theoretical. Nutritional studies consistently show that subjects who eat nutrients in the context of whole food enjoy better health than those who eat isolated and synthetic nutrients. For more on this subject, a good source is Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food.

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13 thoughts on “Corn Aliases: How The King Crop Hides In Everything You Eat”

  1. Fabulous article. I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid High Fructose Corn Syrup, but I had no idea corn is this invasive. It scares me.

  2. holy corn kernal batman!!!! this is scary. i consider myself pretty in-the-know nutritionally, but i didn’t know the extent of the corn infiltration.

    there is no need to forgive. i’m glad your back and hope things are okay w/ your family.


  3. Clearly, corn is everywhere. It is amazing to think of what corn goes into these days. However, this article has some SERIOUS errors that, as a scientist, I think I should comment on.

    I know that there are concerns about corn as an industry. Corn is used as the starting process for many processes in biotechnology and metabolic engineering because it is abundant and cheep. I won’t argue with that. However, that is the only reason that corn is used as a starting material to manufacture the synthetic compounds mentioned in the article.

    This does NOT mean that glucose, ascorbic acid, aminoacids, lactate, lactic acid, etc ARE corn. It is simply erroneous to call these “corn based additives.” They might have been produced with corn, but they are by no means related to corn. Most plants and animals produce citric acid and lactate through their own metabolism. Every organism that has DNA uses aminoacids to make proteins. Biotechnologists could use mostly any plant product to make these compounds.

    Each of these compounds has a chemical structure. Whether they are produced through corn, or some other means, they are molecules–and only that. By assuming that every time “glucose” is an ingredient in something it comes from corn is just preposterous. Glucose is glucose. It is an organic molecule that is used as energy by many organisms. Just because the industry can buy corn cheap and purify certain compounds from it does not mean, as the article implies, that we should stay clear of it. Unfortunately, there is no real way to know where the compounds came from. But for health reasons, it doesn’t matter.

    Actually, if you boycott “aminoacids”, you will die. Your body needs aminoacids (protein) in order to survive.

    Anyways, while these compounds *might* be derived industrially from corn, THEY ARE NOT CORN PRODUCTS, or corn additives. They could have been obtained through many different other processes or from other starting materials.

    The point is good, but misdirects readers into believing things that are simply not accurate. It would be more useful to explore other options to make your diet more organic than to suggest a ban on chemicals that are essential to your health. After all, the L-ascorbic acid that is produced through glucose made by corn is identical to the one you’d get by drinking juice from organic oranges.

  4. Thank you for your article– as a lover of food and health and the environment I am very interested in the subject. I am also interested in knowing where you get your information, and going beyond correlative evidence to studies that actually support causality. For instance, are ‘naturally occurring’ vitamins really better for you than synthetic ones, or is it just that people who eat naturally occurring vitamins tend to be healthier than people who rely on synthetic vitamins. My gut preference happens to be for naturally occurring vitamins, but I would love to learn about hard evidence that supports that feeling.
    I’ve read Pollan’s books and while he raises interesting questions and makes interesting claims, I don’t feel that he provides adequate references for his claims or conclusions.

  5. Now corn is making more money than ever. In the future they don’t need us to eat it when they can make more money burning it in are gas tanks. Whats next a study on green foods?Well I am sure we could drive on that to.Better be careful what you think is Bad for us and the world. Because your words just might be the one that get some one to say it is in the best interest of the human race.If your a poor starving person trying to feed there children I don’t think your going to worry about corn by products.I agree with Pollans when he said this
    Trade fast food for cooking, and maybe you restore some civility to the traditional idea of the meal

  6. Bajpai Vishwanath

    I am interested to know if corn sugar syrup can replace sugar-cane’s sugar with out sacrificing the preservation properties offered by sugar-cane sugar at 62.5% concentration. Could some-one help me out. And if yes, the source for its availability in bulk.

  7. For those of you who are interested in more info. on our “corn based society” there are two very good books. “The Story of Corn” by Betty Fussell, excellent book. The other covers food on a wider scale but has much to say about corn; Michael Pollan’s – The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Excellent insight on the ‘power’ of the corn industry dating back to the Aztecs.

  8. In response to Mauricio’s “But for health reasons, it doesn’t matter. ”

    My daughter is allergic to corn. ANYTHING derived from corn will set off a painful cycle of eczema which can take weeks to subside.

    Chemists do not know everything. Keep looking and you will keep discovering. I suspect that anything derived of corn retains a fingerprint. My family eats only organic now. Corn is the enemy.

  9. My comments are about a year late. I like to thank you for this information. Mauricio’s comments are interesting also but not sure then how to interpret the corn-based food list. Through a process of food elimination and keeping a diary for three years I learned that my intestinal problems occured only when I ate food with corn syrup, corn starch, corn meal, corn oil. My intolerance is to a protein in corn. I wonder how much of a corn protein is retained in the processing as explained by Mauricio. That is, if at the end, it still contains the culprit corn protein. I don’t expect anyone to answer this question this late but the list is something to keep an eye in my diary.

  10. I feel certain that if you actually learned something about the subject you are talking about, you would stop talking about it out of embarrassment. It’s not that all of what you say is wrong. It’s just that so little of what you have to say is right.

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