Cheese is actually a difficult prospect for many folks with corn allergies. In fact, I’ve had some of my most surprising severe reactions from cheese. It seems like such a simple product, and I’ve had a few cheeses that nearly sent me to the hospital from just one bite!
I don’t know if I have the whole story here, but here are potential corn allergy issues I’ve identified with cheeses:
- Production: -corn starch dusting mold and I think also sanitizers which are almost always corn based used on equipment.
- Packaging: Plastic wraps dusted in corn starch, wax papers waxed with corn-based wax or dusted with corn starch. For rounds that are coated in wax, the wax itself could be corn based or could contain a dye that is corn based.
- Re-packaging. When cheese shops and grocery store cheese counters cut the wheels and repackage slices, their equipment may be cross contaminated with corn products, the cleaner on it is cleaned with a corn based sanitizer, and the plastic wrap itself is often dusted in corn starch.
- Starter cultures, rennet, and enzymes. The Wikipedia entry on Rennet has a good overview of what rennet is and how it is produced. There are 5 types of coagulants in cheese making:
- Animal Rennet: Enzymes that coagulate cheese are harvested from the stomachs of calves. While this is a problem for vegetarians, it is one of the safer cultures in cheesemaking for a corn allergy. However that doesn’t mean it’s always safe. Animal rennet can contain all kinds of preservatives that are commonly derived from corn. This ingredients list for a liquid animal rennet contains: propylene glycol, caramel color, flavor, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, all of which are likely from corn. So the safety of the cheese will just depend on the source of the rennet.
- Vegetable Rennet: Many plants produce coagulating chemicals. This can be a variety of sources from caper leaves and thistles to phytic acid from soybeans, and yes, probably corn. I can’t find any evidence that coagulating chemicals are ever extracted from corn, just guessing. However even if they aren’t, the same preservatives listed above are often included in the vegetable rennet packaged for resale. Here’s one ingredients list that includes acetic acid and sodium acetate.
- Microbial Rennet: Molds that produce coagulating enzymes are cultured to produce the coagulants. Can be cultured on a corn sugar medium and of course can be preserved with corn-based chemicals similar to animal rennet.
- Fermentation-produced Chymosin. This is a genetically engineered product. Rennet producing genes are extracted from animal stomachs and inserted into various bacteria, fungi, and yeasts to make them produce chymosin when they wouldn’t normally. Then the chymosis is produced similar to microbial rennet, via fermentation, probably on a corn sugar medium.
- Dyes. Many cheeses are colored with anatto, which can be from corn, or another dye that is corn-based.
So How Do I Find Safe Cheese?
For me personally, I find that artisan cheeses imported from cheese-loving european cultures such as France are better bets. I really don’t know the details of why that’s true, but I am guessing all of the possibilites for “incidental corn” listed above are just lower in those cultures due to small-batch and traditional practices. I have found a couple american-made cheeses that are okay, but the percentage is very small and often they worked for only a time before something changed and I started reacting. The problem is that corn-based chemicals are so widely available here for so many things that eventually the suppliers upstream of the cheese producers will change and previously safe food will become corny.
Something else I am finding is that I have to buy whole rounds.. when big grocery store counters cut the wheels and repackage, their equipment is not just cross contaminated, but also the cleaner on it is cleaned with a corn based sanitizer, and the plastic wrap itself is often dusted in corn starch. I could work with a small shop to cut me a fresh piece from a wheel using equipment cleaned with safe cleaners, but I just haven’t taken the time, instead buying products that come from the manufacturer individually packaged. Provided that the original packaging is safe of course.
Dr. B’s unscented baby mild has been a staple for me for a long time. Body wash, hand wash, cleaning product. About 6 months ago people started reporting reactions, and I noticed that I was getting more and more eczema on my hands that went away when I didn’t wash it with the Dr B’s.
Yeah, someone just went to their web site and saw that they now state that their citric acid is from non-GMO corn. Previously the citric acid was from tapioca, and in fact they currently state on another page of their site that the citric acid is from tapioca, and in September of 2013 they responded in an email to one of our Facebook members that the citric acid was from beets, so this is clearly a somewhat recent change.
A contact from Dr Bronner’s customer service department tells me that they have been using the corn source for over a year, which can’t quite be the case since they last told us beets in September. But I do think it’s likely that they changed shortly after that and a lot of the older stuff didn’t rotate out of stock until 6 months ago or so. One of our Facebook group members has asked for a date/lot #’s so that we can perhaps identify older bottles that are still safe.
I have updated my product list to remove this product but I don’t have a perfect replacement yet. For now I am using Olivella Fragrance Free Bar Soap and making it into a liquid when I need it to be liquid. But it doesn’t work for dishes that well, so I’m not really sure what I’m going to do long term. I’m looking into using soap nuts for cleaning and personal care, but I read that when you make liquid out of soap nuts they go rancid within a couple weeks, so just not sure.
It’s grilling season. Even if you don’t have safe meat or don’t eat meat, all *kinds* of other foods are delicious when cooked over charcoal.
Wait, I have to worry about corn when I grill out? Even if I’m not cooking any food with corn in it?
But of course.
- Propane: The gas itself is corn-free, but the distinctive rotten egg odor added to it is from ethyl mercaptan which is typically sourced from corn. I personally don’t have a lot of concerns about reacting to the fumes in a well ventilated area, or about food cooked over it in a pan, but wouldn’t want to be in an enclosed room with it, and wouldn’t want to eat food that was on a grill directly over it with a closed grill top.
- Charcoal Briquettes: Briquettes are bound into shape using a starch, often corn but sometimes wheat, potato, or rice as well. Less sensitive people may be fine with being near or even cooking over corny charcoal as long as the food doesn’t touch it directly, but I personally can’t even be around it let alone eat food that was cooked over it.
- Charcoal lighter fluid: Often contains ethanol from corn. And also smells terrible even if you aren’t allergic.
- Grill and utensils: If cast-iron, can be pre-seasoned with a problematic oil. Corn oil is rarely used in pre-seasoned cast iron, however soy oil is very common, and even for those who are not soy allergic, many pressed vegetable oils contain citric acid as degummers and other contaminants that will be problematic for a corn allergy.
- Grill and utensils: Can be cross contaminated. This is a big concern only for the truly sensitive. I discovered through experimentation that if I carefully clean a grill that has previously had corny charcoal burned in it, I can handle meat cooked over lump charcoal with the lid open. If, however, I close the lid and let the smoke infuse through the meat, I react to the meat. Somehow residue from the old allergens cooked in the grill remain even after I scrub and cook into the meat. Same with my oven. If I use a brand new grill with the same charcoal and close the lid, I’m fine. Porous foods get corned even with the lid open. Again, you probably have to be crazy sensitive to worry about this, but I know first hand that it is possible.
What do I use instead?
Since some briquettes are bound using non-corn starches, you *could* research a brand that uses one of the alternative starches. However, they could change their source or formula at any time. I prefer to avoid binders entirely and use lump charcoal that is only made from wood, no fillers. Check my product list to see which brands I am using safely. Note that some brands of lump charcoal are extremely poor quality and people have found things like carpenter’s nails in them because they are made from scrap wood. Check online reviews before you purchase a brand and make sure that it’s a high quality product.
Lump charcoal is far more temperamental to light and keep lit than briquettes. That’s why people use briquettes. To get it lit without lighter fluid, I use an electric charcoal starter. You pile the coals over it and plug the starter in, and the coals light in a relatively short time. Because the charcoal isn’t infused with the natural tinder of corn starch, a quality grill that retains heat well and allows for good airflow is important. I got a cheapo grill that had great reviews on Amazon and have found that my lump charcoal doesn’t seem to want to stay lit in it, so will probably need to upgrade. Our more expensive but corny grill has no such problems with the same charcoal, so I do know that it is the grill causing the issue not the fuel.
Barbecues are often chaotic. People are usually milling about, moving dishes around and touching things constantly. If you are preparing both safe, and non-safe food, keep a close eye on what food is touching what utensils and surfaces and don’t let your corn free food come into contact with those things. Probably set yourself up a completely separate prep and staging surface for your food, and consider using a separate grill top if not an entirely separate grill for the corn-free food.
Wash your hands frequently and keep an eye on your guests and family members, especially if they are drinking alcohol. One friend of mine that doesn’t really know much about my allergies constantly tries to “help” and ends up touching things he really shouldn’t with cross contaminated hands. Another friend was standing near my “safe” grill and absentmindedly put some corny trash into my burning coals. It was just the end of a hand-rolled cigarette (corn in the adhesive) and not enough to affect my food, but it could have been something much bigger. Another dear friend is usually VERY careful about cross contamination, and after a couple of beers walked up to my safe grill and stared at the rack of short ribs roasting on it, then reached out and POKED IT WITH HIS FINGER. I think lasers probably shot out of my eyes, because as soon as he did it, he took three steps back and went, “Oh DUDE, I am SO SORRY.” The rib was fine BTW, as he’d just washed his hands before doing that and had only touched his relatively clean beer bottle with his other hand.
I’ll just go ahead and spoil this post by saying that I haven’t actually negotiated a corn free tattoo. I’m sure it’s possible to do, I just haven’t done it. This question just comes up a lot so I wanted to cover what we *do* know about corn allergy concerns with tattooing.
Tattoo ink consists of a pigment that imparts the color, and a carrier or base for the pigment to make it flow freely so that it can be injected into your dermis with the tattoo gun. The carrier for the ink is typically ethanol or glycerin. Ethanol can be from a number of things but is usually corn. Glycerin is usually from corn, soy, or palm. The pigments could be corny but usually are mineral based. It will be harder to find out about what is in the pigments than what the carrier is. You will need to get ahold of your artists ink supplier and get THEM to talk with you about the carrier, don’t expect your artist to know what’s in them.
I have heard that some tattoo inks use witch hazel for the carrier, however not only is witch hazel often actually witch hazel extract in a corn ethanol base, but I have heard that witch hazel tattoos age poorly. I have also heard that some artists mix their own inks from a dry pigment base, but I would be concerned with getting the correct concentration each time. But I’m not an expert: that level of detail is where you need work directly with your artist. You’ll need to find someone that has a proven track record of good art that ages well, and who is willing to work with you to keep you safe.
In addition to the ink itself you may need to be concerned about:
- antiseptic used on skin before the work
- plastic tubing (that ink runs through)
- ointment applied after the tattoo
- plastic ink cups
- plastic soap bottle and soap inside it
- plastic wrap or other sheeting that may be used to cover surfaces
- paper towels (he uses to wipe away excess ink as he works)
- sanitizer used to wash any surfaces
- the artist’s hand soap
- the artist’s personal care products such as deodorant or aftershave
- Any bandage or wrap used to cover the tattoo after work is finished.
- Adhesive used to attach the bandage, wrap, or cover.
A tattoo shop may be limited in what they can and can’t use depending on state and local regulations, so it’s important to choose an artist that will communicate clearly with you and takes your concerns seriously. Never get a tattoo from someone you don’t trust and who doesn’t treat you kindly. That’s just generally good advice even if you don’t have any allergies.
I haven’t yet found a corn free tattoo ink. I have many tattoos but I got them all before becoming very sensitive to corn and have been afraid to get more work since then. I really haven’t been trying hard though: finding safe food has been a higher priority so I haven’t contacted any ink manufacturers yet. If you find a corn free ink please let me know, and if you happen to find one that is free of soy and palm as well that would be just dandy.
It’s getting to be my travel season again, and while I haven’t solved most of my problems, I’m at least getting better at working around them.
My last travel post was nearly a year ago, and was my first major trip since developing an intense sensitivity to corn, multiple food allerges, and becoming airborne sensitive:
Corn Free Travel: To Baltimore and Back Again
Since then I have traveled to:
- Austin, Texas for the Housecore Horror Film Festival (yes, as in movies! But they didn’t serve popcorn so I could actually go!)
- Oakland and San Francisco, CA (twice!)
My upcoming trips:
After a few trips like this, I am somewhat of an old hand at traveling. It doesn’t really get less awkward, but I just am more resigned to it. I refuse to quit living my life and doing things I enjoy just because my body is a jerk, so I am going to keep going through this effort and expense.
The topics covered in my previous post are still germane, and I still have a water problem that is not corn. I haven’t solved this water problem. I am still shipping my water ahead. Here’s a rundown of my travel “routine”:
Hi there, I was just diagnosed with a corn allergy and your website is so helpful. Thank you for all the time and care you have put into sharing your knowledge!! Question — I know some glycerin can be corn derived. I have a hand cream that has glycerin and I emailed the mfr…they said the product is corn free and the glycerin is a synthetic form. Does this answer the question? I am not educated enough to know if this guy is not educated enough to answer me properly!!
Thanks so much.
Your instinct to question the accuracy of that answer is totally correct. It’s not usually that manufacturers are trying to lie to you, it’s just that they don’t really know enough about chemistry to be able to answer your questions. When people say an ingredient is synthesized, always ask: “Synthesized using what?” You can’t just create something out of thin air, after all. There must have been some starting materials. If they say something generalized like “citrus fruit” or “plant cellulose,” ask WHICH fruit, WHICH plants. And then still try carefully. :)
As it turns out, it is actually possible to synthesize glycerin from a non-corn source. Here’s the big secret of how I figured that out: I looked it up on Wikipedia
. Under the section about production
, they mentioned that it can be from vegetable fats or indeed that it can be synthesized. If you click on the links for the materials they list as the building blocks for synthesis, you’ll see they are all petroleum sources. That’s interesting though. I have literally never seen anyone say they use glycerin from that source. It’s always vegetable.
Best of luck with your new diagnosis. It’s a wild ride, but if you just take it one step at a time you’ll be fine.
I just received an email from my compounding pharmacist out of the blue that he was able to order some Xyzal for me and that it’ll be in in two weeks! His timing couldn’t be better, as I am dealing with some pretty horrific seasonal allergies right now.
And that’s really all I had to say. I’m on something of an unofficial hiatus right now, taking a bit of a breather after a summer of intense preserving. Because I am allergic to pretty much every vegetable that grows between October and May, I had to spend June-September preserving enough food for one adult to eat for 7 months. That’s, um, a lot of food. No cheating and going to the grocery store- if it ain’t in my freezer or growing in a pot in my living room, I can’t eat it. Well, other than pears, apples, oranges, clams, and oysters. Those are the only foods I can get safe nearly year round.
But the details on that is for another post, when I’ve had a bit more time to rest and recover. Just wanted to share my victory! If you’re still trying to find corn-free non-drowsy antihistamines, just know that it IS possible!