Curt Ellis is a filmmaker and four-wheel farmer based in Brooklyn, NY. He co-created the documentaries "King Corn" and "The Greening of Southie," and is a Food and Society Policy Fellow. He is the co-founder of Wicked Delicate.

Life outside the corn kingdom

By
November 18, 2007

When we started the King Corn Challenge two and half weeks ago, the idea of living corn-free for a month seemed fun. We’d lay off the soda and the corn-fed burgers, and learn to recognize the ways we unknowingly enjoy America’s biggest crop.

We were in for a sobering surprise.

Since announcing the contest, we’ve been deluged with a flood of comments, notes, and emails from people who live the King Corn Challenge every day, because they — or someone they love — are allergic to corn.

The lists of potential corn products the allergy community has shared with us are unbelievable . . . and ever-expanding:

  • Pure vanilla extract (suspended in alcohol derived from corn)
  • Fish (washed with corn-derived citric acid)
  • Dental floss (waxed with corn)
  • Fresh vegetables (coated with corn-based wax)
  • Frozen vegetables (dusted with corn starch)
  • Toilet paper (commonly contains corn derivatives)
Not everyone is made of corn.

Few of these products are labeled as containing corn, and for someone with a corn allergy, contact with them can lead to hives, migraines, intestinal distress, anaphylactic shock, or wild swings in behavior and mood. Avoiding corn altogether seems to be the only way to stay healthy.

Our feeble attempt (mine and Ian’s) to get corn out of our diets hasn’t had us baking our own bread from wild yeasts (the store-bought stuff often feeds on ethanol), building our own beehives (commercial keepers often feed their colonies corn syrup in the winter), or calling sausage companies to ask what brand of salt the kielbasa casings were stored with (the iodide is often stabilized with a corn derivative). In truth, we’re only beginning to get corn out of our diets, and come December, we get to go back to eating it. Thank goodness, too; corn isn’t bad or necessarily bad for us, but it’s the basis of cheap food, and it sure seems to be everywhere.

My most humbling conversation came yesterday, when I talked with a woman whose six-year-old son started showing signs of a corn allergy when he was a toddler. He would act out when eating baby fruit chews (sweetened with high fructose corn syrup), and refused to color with crayons, play with paste, or touch his hands to finger paint (all include corn derivatives). Then his behavior problems started to approach the bipolar or autistic. Finally, an allergy test exposed the likely culprit. “We cleared our cupboards of corn, and he started to do much better,” his mom told me. “Here was this brilliant child, being suffocated from this allergy.”

Since the diagnosis, the boy hasn’t been inside a restaurant, and hasn’t eaten many things Mom didn’t make. But still the allergen has proven almost impossible to avoid: in one incident, Dad passed some nice clean grapes to the little guy after touching his hands to corn-starch and corn-oil coated French fries, and set off a nine-hour reaction.

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“It’s like being Amish — with electricity,” says Mom. “I bake my own bread, grind my own beef, make my own ketchup and mustard.”

Faced with the prospect of raising their boy in a bubble, this remarkable family has decided just to make the bubble big enough for all of them. The sacrifices cut deep: Mom can’t work, and is spending most of this weekend cooking homemade meals for a three-day road trip to an allergy clinic in Baltimore. Thanksgiving may be spaghetti.

But in a world without fast food, processed snacks, or restaurant meals, they’re eating well. “We’re unbelievably healthy,” Mom reports. “We grow a big garden, and my six-year-old even has his own plot; he grows beans and lettuce.”

And best of all, he can eat them.

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1. by rosewx12 on Nov 19, 2007 at 6:59 AM PST

Thank you for the mention of those of us who are forced to go corn free. :) My 2 year old is up all night bouncing off the walls followed by digestive distress if I even feed her a peeled wax (corn) covered apple. Even the trace scraped in during peeling is too much for her. Sometimes I feel a little crazy making hand made tortilla’s just so we can have burritos... but it’s a lot better then a sick child. We survive off the farmers market in the summer. I have no clue how we’re going to get her a good balance this winter. (Next year I start canning.)

2. by simplyv on Nov 20, 2007 at 1:06 AM PST

Thanks so much for posting about this. Life with a corn allergy definitely isn’t fun and because of the proliferation of corn in the American (and world) diet, it can be a horribly isolating condition one that very few people can fully grasp.

So thanks for understanding and helping the rest of the world become educated in the plight of people with this allergy.

3. by MLO on Nov 20, 2007 at 7:58 AM PST

Thank-you. Corn allergy is probably the most isolating of the food allergies due to its prevalence in the American industrial system - not just food. I’m lucky enough to tolerate (as in always feel mildly ill) some of the derivatives. I know that there are others for whom the dangers are much, much greater.

There are no laws requiring the labeling of corn or its derivatives - and the companies are free to not tell us anything. Most non-specialists who deal with the corn allergic accidentally poison them from time to time. And it hides in places no one would ever expect.

Pax,

MLO

4. by KJE on Mar 31, 2008 at 7:52 AM PDT

Does anyone know where I can buy Idun yeast? I hear it is not grown on corn. I am highly allergic to corn, and find it difficult to find products that do not contain any corn or corn derivatives.

5. by OpusOne on Mar 31, 2008 at 8:45 AM PDT

Hi KJE,

The a corn-free foods (& products) blog seems to indicate some sources for ordering it online. Good luck!

6. by Denice on Nov 18, 2009 at 10:46 PM PST

About “Where can I buy Idun yeast?”

You can buy Idun yeast at www.norskmat.com but the site is written in norwegian and the shipping makes it extremely expensive. I haven’t found a place to buy the yeast stateside yet. The cost at www.norskmat.com, if I’ve converted everything correctly, is $1.80 for 5-50gram packets. I typed in a trial order for 10 packages which would give me 50 packets or 50 loaves of bread. The cost for the yeast was $18.00 and the shipping was $58.75.
If you go to www.norskmat.com click on “Butikk” (=shop or boutique)
Then on the left side menu at the bottom click BAKEARTIKLER (=baking articles/things)
In the item list look for Idun Tørrgjær 5 pk.

These are the listed ingredients from the www.norskmat.com web site.
TØRRGJÆR
Dry Yeast
Ingredienser: Gjær: en levende organisme,
Ingredients: yeast: a living organism nutrient
næringsstoffer som:gjødningsstoffer, mineraler,
nourishmentstuff like:nutrients, minerals
sukker, vitaminer. 5 poser tørrgjær.Hver pose tilsvarer 50 g fersk gjær.
Sugar, vitamins. 5 packets dry yeast. Every packet contains 50g fresh yeast.

This is a copy of the email I received from the Idun company, stating that the yeast is corn free.
Denice
FSS-640028

Hello,
Thanks for your request regarding Idun Tørrgjær. This product is corn free. Unfortunately, we cannot sell our products direct to our consumers – but through wholesalers/distributors. norskmat.com is a grocery store on internet and they have Idun Tørrgjær.

Lykke til!=Good Luck

Med vennlig hilsen=with friendly greeting/sincerely
Stabburet AS

Forbrukerservice=customer service
Postboks 711
1411 Kolbotn

Grønt nummer: 800 33 005=phone

I’ll keep searching and check with some Norwegian contacts.
Denice

7. by thorbulgin10 on Feb 27, 2011 at 5:59 PM PST

I am 10 years old and I have an opinion about corn. It is a bad ingredient for me. It is so bad that i have started making a project about it. How does this effect you and what is your reaction?

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