Clearing Up Some Misconceptions About Corn Allergy

When you google “corn allergy”, the top links you get back seem to convey a picture of corn avoidance that is far less complicated than what I experience, and what the folks in my support groups and who contact me directly through my blog experience. Now, I’m not trying to bum anybody out here, but I am trying to keep everybody safe. Which does seem to bum people out a lot. But hey, I like being alive so I’m not bummed at all to know things that keep me that way.

Here are some of the things I see a lot of the most popular google hits on corn allergy get wrong. I’ve included references where I can, but in a lot of cases research on these kinds of things just haven’t been funded. So for some items all I really have is my own experiences, my own critical thinking, and reports from the patient community to go on. I would much prefer solid statistics and rigorous studies. If you would like to explore some of these topics in that manner, let me know and I will help you find volunteers to participate.

In the meantime, this is what I know, based on as much peer-reviewed research as I can find, the reports of 8,000 members in a support group, and many dozens of direct messages between myself and members of the corn allergy community:

Misconceptions about Corn Allergies
  1. Corn allergy reactions are only to the protein.
  2. If you have to avoid derivatives and traces of corn, you can do so by reading labels.
  3. If you have to avoid derivatives and traces of corn, you can do so by calling or emailing manufacturers and asking them if their product “contains corn”.
  4. Airborne reactivity to corn is impossible or at least incredibly rare.
  5. Coping with a corn allergy only involves avoiding foods that contain corn.
  6. The symptoms of a food allergy are limited to hives, hay-fever type symptoms, severe facial swelling, or throat closing.
  7. Food intolerances cannot cause serious reactions.

Incorrect: Corn allergy reactions are only to the protein. Starches, sugars, alcohols or other items synthesized using corn products as a starting material cannot cause an allergic reaction.

Actually:

Allergens can be more than just proteins.

Those articles are about allergens other than corn, but it’s intuitively obvious that if we barely have scratched the surface of identifying possible epitopes, we definitely don’t know ALL of the constituents of corn, peanuts, or other foods, that can cause an allergic reaction.

Protein-free in theory is not protein-free in practice.

Even if a person only reacts to the protein, if you look at the patents for many of the processes by which corn derivatives are made, especially for food-grade use which is less strictly regulated than lab use, it becomes clear that not a lot is done to purify the final product from its starting materials of corn.

Here’s a youtube review of citric acid production on aspergillus niger that discusses how it’s strained from the growth medium:

And here’s a patent that discusses simply centrifuging the mycelial growth out, which does nothing to remove any corn steep liquor that may not have been fully metabolized.

Whatever the reason, the patient experience is that we react to derivatives that “should” not contain protein.

I have a few research links to provide about this, but most of it you’ll have to just take my word as a patient, and as someone who’s in contact with a ton of patients. Again, if you’re someone that wants to conduct a rigorous study, please let me help you find some participants.

Almost everyone I’ve personally encountered with a corn allergy has to avoid sugar, starch, and food-grade alcohols derived from corn. Even the people who aren’t sensitive enough to need support groups or contact me for help.
Among the people that are sensitive enough to need a support group and/or reach out to me for help, most of us have to avoid more processed derivatives such as citric acid, lactic acid, ascorbic acid, and all of the other items found on the corn derivative list.

I have references on my “hidden corn” post showing *how* these items are from corn, but there isn’t a lot of research funded on proving that people have corn allergy reactions to them. We, as patients, just know that we do react to these things when they are derived from corn, and that we don’t when they aren’t, and we frequently have the reaction before we are aware of the corn-derived ingredients.

Here’s what I have for resources showing the possibility to reacting to corn based sugars, and starches. Unfortunately all I have is patient experience regarding ethanol or other derivatives. But it’s seriously a *lot* of patient experience.

Incorrect: If you have to avoid derivatives and traces of corn, you can do so by reading labels.

Actually:

As I detail in my hidden corn post (linked above), there are all kinds of ways that cross contamination can occur and not have to be listed on an ingredient.

Just a few examples off the top of my head:

More info in my hidden corn post.

Incorrect: If you have to avoid derivatives and traces of corn, you can do so by calling or emailing manufacturers and asking them if their product “contains corn”.

Actually:

Man, I wish this were true. I can’t tell you how many times I have people say, either directly to me or via the support groups, “Good news! I’ve contacted the company and they have verified that this product is corn free!”

Funny story, there doesn’t seem to be any reliable correlation between companies reporting this and people with corn allergy actually tolerating the item. In fact if there is one, it’s a negative correlation: Often when companies are confident that there is no corn in their product, they fail to answer questions accurately that would reveal where the hidden corn is.

I have a post discussing my experiences with calling companies about their products and giving some advice on getting a more accurate answer, and Von over at Avoiding Corn has some further explanation of why it’s so hard to get an accurate answer. That’s why we have the support groups- to trade stories of what we react to and tolerate and give ourselves slightly better than a random chance that we’ll tolerate the things we try.

Incorrect: Airborne reactivity to corn is impossible or at least incredibly rare.

Actually:

I know from personal experience that it’s possible, and if I thought I wouldn’t literally die, I would prove it in a double-blind study.

As it is, most of my airborne reactions have happened when I had no idea there was a contaminant around, and I only found out after I had a severe reaction that there was corn near me.

And I’m not actually unusual. I see a *lot* of people that I don’t consider to be super sensitive to traces and cross contamination with corn who still react airborne to popcorn, cooked corn, and corn chips. Sorry, no statistics here- that would require resources I don’t have and no one has funded a study that I’m aware of. I just observe that I don’t see too many people in the support groups who avoid eating corn but can be around corn.

Incorrect: Coping with a corn allergy only involves avoiding foods that contain corn.

Actually:

Having an adverse reaction to corn affects the medications you take, body products you use, and whether you can tolerate the air in many public places, including roads and highways.

Navigating medical procedures and medication with a corn allergy involves a ton of advanced preparation and research.

Additionally many of the ingredients on the derivative list above are also found in bath and body products including soap and shampoo. Cross reference this list with the ingredients list of literally any soap, lotion, or cosmetic you pick up.

Additionally a number of airborne contaminants that are sometimes annoying to people but not usually considered dangerous for allergies are a big problem for corn allergy: stage fog effects (corn glycerin), vape fumes (also corn glycerin), the ethanol in gas fumes, corn starch in fire works. Most corn allergy suffers report issues with artificial scents and fabric softeners.

Incorrect: The symptoms of a food allergy are limited to hives, hay-fever type symptoms, severe facial swelling, or throat closing. Anything else is an “intolerance.”

Actually:

Allergic reactions can cause a range of symptoms throughout the body.

These include: diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, headache, eczema, dizziness, tachycardia, skin flushing, laryngeal swelling, seizures, low blood-oxygen levels (hypoxemia), and chest pain.

Incorrect: Food intolerances cannot cause serious reactions.

Non-allergic food reactions can be serious or even deadly.

In conclusion, any food you have an adverse reaction to is a food you should avoid, regardless of whether you have a “true allergy” or not.

19 thoughts on “Clearing Up Some Misconceptions About Corn Allergy

  1. Is there corn-free insulin?  Due to my corn allergy and the use of steroids I now have diabetes type 2.  most of my rx meds are compounded to avoid corn, soy, gluten fillers.  if you have any info with reference to type 2 treatment please help me?

    thank you barbara

  2. I’ve had reactions all my life. Finally found out it was corn and corn derivatives. I especially get reactions to derivatives.
    I always say I should be a science experiment.
    I hate corn. I wish it was on the allergy list.
    It is in Canada and Europe. Maybe I should move there.

  3. Hi, thanks for your latest message.  It has resonated with me and explained some things that I react to.  I am in UK and have problems with corn and its derivitives, which have been very difficult to identify,  I was delighted to find your web-site about 18 months ago and now you have shed even more light.  I find that hot pop-corn takes my breath away in cinemas, I struggle with perfume in many products, including shampoos and conditioners.  I stopped using fabic conditioner years ago.  When my late partner used his vaping machine in the car, I always started coughing, although they don’t affect me in a larger space.I am almost certain that I react to sugars in various foods.  I know that I react to lactose and for some time using lactose-free products kept me healthy but then I started reacting again and I believe that I am now reacting to the corn that has been eaten by the cow.  I have also found that I am much healthier eating only 100% grass-fed beef and lamb.  I also eat only free-range organic pork and poultry.  I believe this is because the pigs and poultry themselves are better adapted to digest the corn, being omnivores, although when free-range they are not fed large amounts of corn.  I can now eat small amounts of cheese and butter made from milk from 100% grass-fed cows’ milk, so long as I also take lactase.  I have to be very careful with medicines, as many over-the counter medicines contain corm/derivitives.  I dread having to spend time in hospital as I know from previous experience that allergies are not taken seriously unless they are likely to cause anaphylaxis, which fortunately mine don’t.  I react to ethanol, citiric acid and ascorbic acid.  I have to avoid prepared green salads and fruit salads.  Your post has explained why I had to leave an event in the school where I was teaching, when there was a ‘smoke machine’.  I knew that I was reacting to it but have only just found out why.  I have to avoid the air-freshener and laundry product aisles in supermarkets.I have found recently that I react to ‘organic agave syrup’, I am still trying to work out whether I actually react to the agave or to corn which it has been adulterated with.  I certainly react to cheap honey. I now buy only local honey. Thank you so much for helping me to identify the products that corn is hidden in.  My ‘evidence’ is only anecdotal but if it helps in any way, please feel free to use it, or to ask for clarification. Allison

  4. Wow. I never knew why I had to avoid random foods and additives. Guess I am more reactive to corn then I realized. Oddly, I can eat certain types of corn, mostly when I travel to places overseas that grow their own indigenous crops. I mean, I can eat several roasted ears of it, not just tolerate the dust. But in the US, a bit of corn starch produces eczema and diarrhea, and IBS before I knew not to do it,

  5. Have you already checked if kosher for Passover food would help? Because of prohibitions on something called “kitniyot”, corn and corn starches are not in kosher for Passover foods.

    1. It can help “corn lite” people. However there are different interpretations of kitniyot and some of them allow for corn, so it’s not foolproof even for them. For more sensitive people like myself, there’s just too much cross contamination in any packaged food via sanitiziers, packaging, facilities, etc, regardless of whether a corn ingredient is used.

  6. I met corn once as ‘pregelatised starch’ – you can never tell what they’ll call it. I avoid ‘starch’ in anything new. And I get speeded up heartbeat from either corn or wheat – so bad I’ve been hospitalised for it as they couldn’t slow my heart down for over 24 hours. I now carry an emergency pill with me everywhere. It took them ages to find something to stop it. This was after ingesting a very small amount. Well done on your blog! Very helpful even after my 25 years of coping with food intolerances. I’m the author of 86 novels, with more on the way – and the other thing corn and wheat do is blur my brain/imagination so that I can’t think, let alone tell stories.

  7. Excellent article.The smell of corn also affects me. Went to Kellogs factory tour in the 90’s they were making cornflakes that is how I found out I was allergic to corn. I immediately felt like I had the flu and felt like flipping my lid, terrible reaction, some people would have died. The citric acid issue is really a problem, people don’t realize that there is corn in lettuce, tomatoes, etc. I have had no problem with Jovial Tomatoes, in a jar at Whole Foods. Earthbound Farms spinach, lettuce, & frozen vegetables are corn free. I get headaches from fabric softner, did not know it had corn till now. Have had to have rx made at compounding pharmacy. Iv’s in hospital have corn. Many mfgs will tell you there product is corn free. I have tried so many yogurts & only found 1 in Canada that is. It is Libetere plain. But I live in U.S. Thank you for doing such a thorough article.

    1. I have found that the unflavoref Fage Greek yogurt is safe for me. Ingredients: Grade A pasteurized skimmed milk and cream, live active yogurt cultures B. Bulgaricus, S. Thermophilus, L. acidophilis, Bifidus, L. casei.
      Please note that the flavored varieties do contain corn.

  8. I just found out I have a corn allergy and my Immunologist wants me to cut out all corn and corn byproducts. I never realized how much in our daily life contains corn. I wish there was more out there about it like this blog and I wish more companies would put corn in their allergy lists. I want to eat out again 😦

    1. I am right there with you girl. Just found out from a skin test in March that I have A LOT of food allergies, corn being one. I’ve done the elimination thing, which was probably not even 100% accurate, due to new findings with corn every other freakin day! And I’ve gone out to eat a few times, trying to just avoid all the items I can’t have
      (fully aware that going out to eat is impossible to stay on track) and I’ve gotten sick or felt like I was getting a cold a few days after, almost every time. I feel like I can’t win. I want to just move to an island with no restaurants & an endless supply of organic food. 😦

    2. I was diagnosed with “Fructose Intolerance” in 1989, other than the reference book that the Doctor had, (which stated there were only 5 documented cases at that time, kind of figures I would be #6) there was not any information out there to be found.
      So I became a label reader, and after hours of reading label in a grocery store I deduced after seeing high fructose corn syrup on labels, I knew I could not have that, then also seeing Corn sweeteners, corn syrup, later finding maltodextrin, dextrose, and of course corn oil which a lot of restaurants use to fry foods in, the exclusion list just kept growing and going on and on.
      So, I came up with a safe list of my own.
      Baked, broiled, boiled, grilled or raw.
      That was mainly how I looked at menus when I would go out, noting with a sauce.
      I am lucky in a way, my problems are limited to Gastrointestinal problems and not full blown allergic reaction.
      It kind of knocks out going to restaurants and you have to cook a lot for yourself.
      If you can tolerate the raw part of salads, you have to avoid salad dressings, so you can use olive oil and vinegar with/or salt and pepper, but you have to ask, because some restaurants use canola oil which can give you problems too.

  9. Thanks for all of this extra info!! I’m not even sure how BAD my corn allergy really is, since it was just a skin test and I don’t have anaphylactic reactions, I get sick all the time bc my immune system is attacked. But man have I learned a lot.

  10. Most fascinating. I learned corn triggers symptoms of Lichen Sclerosus which is an awful, debilitating autoimmune disorder. This site and blog collection has been transformational! Thank you so much.

  11. I developed an allergy to corn when I was about 12. First it affected my digestion but now it leaves dry burns on my skin (just by touching a corn kernel against it) and after eating Gluten Free pizza I was left with blisters all over my lips, inside and out, as well as a burnt tongue, roof of my mouth and burnt throat. Thanks for information, I only know one other person who was intolerant to corn, my sister, and somehow she managed to be able to eat it again after going gluten free…obviously not for me though!

  12. This is great!
    Type 2/c, dextrose/cornstarch, etc.. all set me off as a drunk. I do not do meds, keto/carnivore diet maintains, but hidden cornstarch/dextrose is hurting me! I eat clean, but, bacon.. 90% has dextrose.
    I thought I was going crazy, I thought it was just me, thank you so much for this info!

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