By day I am a thirtysomething technology professional. By night I am many things: nerd, metalhead, conservationist, smartass, homeowner, revolutionary.
My main “hobby” these days is survival: I have a severe and sensitive allergy to corn, which is not only a food, but is used in food additives, preservatives, disinfectants, lotions, cosmetics, dyes, building materials, and more.
To stay safe, I’ve had to attempt self-education in many areas that I’ve never even had an interest in previously: food science, textiles, polymer science, microbiology, and chemistry, to name just a few.
While I have many varied interests that have nothing to do with my health, the corn allergy is mostly what I write about, at least in public forums. Close behind would be chronic illness, invisible disabilities, and chemical sensitivity.
The Corn Allergy Girl
“Hey there, this is B. We talked the other day about the source of the citric acid in your products? I wanted to ask you about your–“
“–Oh, the corn allergy girl. Yes, I remember you.”
It’s not that I really WANT the title. I just get it anyway. Might as well embrace it. And I’m most certainly not the only corn allergy girl. In fact, if you have a corn allergy, and likely to be called a “girl” rather than a “dude,” a “lady,” or perhaps something less polite, then you probably already share the title.
An Amateur Scientist
Unlike more well-known allergens such as peanuts and shellfish, corn is not a “top 8” allergen in the United States, and therefore is not required to be labeled in food or personal care products as a source for an ingredient or if the facilities or equipment may be contaminated with traces. To further complicate things, corn is not only a food, but is used in food additives, preservatives, disinfectants, lotions, cosmetics, dyes, building materials, and more. Since corn is cheap, if a product can be made out of any vegetable, it is usually made out of corn.
Most products you can buy from the store, including whole foods like grass-fed meat and organic vegetables, have enough traces of corn to cause a reaction in me, and the only way to find out whether trying a product is safe is to either guinea pig it and hope for the best (not ideal since allergic reactions can be life-threatening) or to contact the supplier/manufacturer ahead of time and ask them detailed questions they aren’t accustomed to answering and don’t always know the answer to.
Given the complex nature of food and supplement manufacturing these days, asking, “Is there any corn in this?” rarely gets a useful or correct answer. People think you are asking if there are whole kernels of corn, or corn starch, and for a very sensitive allergy, that just isn’t a deep enough treatment of the subject.
In order to even know what questions to ask to judge potential safety of a product, I’ve had to attempt self-education in many areas that I’ve never even had an interest in previously: food science, textiles, meat processing, commercial fishing, polymer science, microbiology, and chemistry, to name just a few. Given my total lack of background and limited time to devote to research, my understanding in these areas is imperfect, yet still more in-depth than many. I try to share what I’ve learned and welcome correction when I’ve got it wrong.
An Unwilling Hippie
I’ve also needed to get in touch with my inner hippie. I already had some of these tendencies before, but it was mostly in the vein of general kitchen-witchery: home-baked bread, high quality spices, home ferments, small knitting projects, handmaking cosmetics and soaps occasionally, and candles from melt-and-pour kits. You know, hobbies that could reasonably be researched in a few hours and executed in a day. I never had any particular interest in getting extreme, or actually, like, growing all my own food, grinding my own flour, hand-cracking my own nuts if I wanted to make nut butter or nut milk, or only using personal care products I made myself, ever. In fact, I was pretty vehemently opposed to doing that kind of thing on a regular basis. That is why we have such a thing as trade and economy- because people want things that they can’t or don’t want to make themselves.
I also had little interest in going *too* far to sacrifice convenience or thrift for sustainability. I recycled, sure, and even composted when there was someone who took care of the actual compost pile. I got reusable glass containers and used them *most* of the time, though if they were dirty, I did have a backup supply of disposable plastic tupperware. I loved going to the farmers’ market once in a while, but going *every* week? What a pain!
Unfortunately, when you start reacting to just about everything disposable and premade, you are faced with three choices: skip it, get the reusable version if it exists, or make your own. Sometimes, if you are lucky, you can spend a fortune on a premium brand for something that may be safe, but as time goes on and your wallet gets thinner, you start opting to make your own more and more often.
And forget grocery stores. If you’re unable to eat anything that’s ever been processed, packaged, or sprayed, you end up needing to eat seasonally and locally. This means that other than a few select organic farms in other states with practices that work for me that direct ship, I really can’t eat food out of season.
On the one hand, it’s been really rewarding to get in touch with local farmers and support families who grow food that supports me. I actually love the weekend trips to the farmers markets. I love it so much that I work at them occasionally now. But I don’t love knowing that if I don’t preserve stuff while it’s in season, I can’t eat it for the rest of the year. Being allergic to all of the winter vegetables means that if I don’t preserve during the summer I will actually *go hungry* in the winter. All in all being in touch with the seasons and being part of a community is pretty cool, but you know what? I hate being committed to going to the market and being set back if I want to take a trip on a weekend, and as someone with a more-than-full-time job on top of all my health needs, I really long for the days when I could just grab something from the store.
What it comes down to is that life choices are much easier when they are choices. Investing this much energy becomes a huge burden when it’s something you must do to survive. Overall I’m pretty positive and enjoy a lot of the things I have to do, but it most definitely isn’t an easy life.
Why the Blog
Well, I’ve spent so much time researching this stuff, I might as well share what I know. And honestly, I forget it myself if I don’t write it down. So I am going to start brain-dumping everything I know here. Also, this life is hard, and one of the things that keeps me going is having a sense of humor about it and helping others by giving them the information that I’ve learned the hard way. That way I feel like at least if I’ve had to suffer, it wasn’t completely useless.
The corn allergy accounts for the most life-altering food and environmental restrictions I have, but I am also allergic to over 30 other foods, dozens of environmental allergens, and hypersensitive to a number of different chemicals. I try to keep the blog focused mostly on the corn allergy, as that is the area in which I am most able to nail down sources. Because I am sensitive to more than corn, I try to only report on contaminated items when I am sure that other corn allergics are reacting to that item. If I am making a guess or a warning based on my experience or on the experiences of others’ who also have multiple sensitivities, I try to make that clear.
Allergy Profile (in brief)
I discovered my corn allergy in 2006, simultaneously with gluten intolerance. I am a probable celiac given my family history and my symptoms, but have never sought a formal diagnosis. In 2012 my already-known corn allergy went from a more “normal” allergy to hypersensitive and extremely severe. I began having throat-closing and facial-swelling reactions to eating small traces of corn-based additives such as citric acid and xanthan gum, and began having severe systemic reactions (blood pressure drop, blurred vision, severe asthma, feeling of throat closing) from being near items such as popscorn or items fried in corn flour.
Within a year of becoming more sensitive to corn, I also began to have moderate to severe reactions to over 30 other foods when ingested (only corn causes severe airborne reactions so far), and now have severe sensitivities to dozens of chemicals. To explain the number of allergies and rapidity of onset, I am also accruing a number of other diagnoses including H-EDS, Dysautonomia, and suspicion of MCAD. You can read more about those on my more long-winded “Allergy History” page.
At the time of writing I am unable to eat any vegetables in the brassica, chenopod families, can’t eat any root vegetables unless I grow them myself due to allergy issues with the fertilizer, and also haven’t been able to eat any squash that I’ve tried. So that’s most vegetables, basically. But hey, I can eat the hell out of some lettuce, and I have also been having good luck with many fruits.
Due to chemical sensitivities in combination with a sensitivity to cross-contamination in facilities with corn and corn products, I am also unable to eat any food that has ever been processed on equipment, or packaged in any way other than being placed into a box. When I say processed, I don’t mean highly processed, I mean things like threshing dry beans from pods and placing them in a burlap or plastic bag. Or shelling walnuts with a shelling machine rather than by hand.
What it boils down to is that I need to get all of my food fresh and local. Most things that have been pre-cooked, canned, frozen, or transported usually have something *done* to them that cornifies them: spraying, waxing, gassing, glazing, or disinfecting all usually involves something corn-based. Then in addition, the more times something is exposed to a new surface, the more likely it is that one of my other sensitivities will contaminate the time.