I’ll go vegetarian if you go corn free.

Over a year ago, someone commented on my post detailing the challenges of finding corn-free meat by asking why one would not become a vegetarian instead of going to all that trouble.

My diet, and the diet of many people with corn allergy, is so limited that that would be a guarantee of malnutrition. I already fight malnutrition constantly. Adding an extra limitation beyond what I am already dealing with sounds downright dangerous.

This comment was written on a blog that is literally about how challenging a corn free diet is, on an article that goes into depth on just one single aspect of how challenging it is. Either I’m not conveying the magnitude of the problem well, or the person writing didn’t bother to try to understand the problem before offering a solution.

So here’s one more attempt to explain it.

Why is a corn-free diet so limited?

I do have a lot of challenges besides corn. But let’s pretend for a minute that my only issue was a severe, anaphylactic, airborne, and highly sensitive corn allergy. With only that:

    • I would be unable to eat almost any food from the grocery store, even whole organic produce, because of the possibility of corny packaging, organic sprays containing corn derivatives,  waxes, and cross contamination. People with a more moderate sensitivity to corn will still have many challenges finding foods in the grocery store that they can eat safely. In fact, those that can eat some foods but not others from the regular store have more to keep track of than those for whom this just is not an option.

 

    • This includes being unable to use pre-ground flours or any grains, beans, nuts or seeds that have been shelled, husked, or cleaned using machinery. Because of growing practices, threshing equipment, and packaging, dry beans are incredibly hard for those with corn allergies, even moderate ones, to find. I don’t think anyone has found a brand that works for many super-sensitive people since the Straw Hat beans changed the threshing equipment they were using. Some of us are using local farms who either sell us the dried beans in pod, or get fresh beans and dry ourselves.

 

    • I would be unable to tolerate almost most–or possibly any–vegetable oils. Most super sensitive people can tolerate Jovial olive oil, but some people even react to that and have no safe vegetable-based oil. Those people use the fat rendered from their safe meat, and this is one of the reasons why meat is such an important staple to us. Otherwise all our food is broiled, baked, and braised dry. Those that tolerate several vegetable oils still have dozens they can’t use due to contamination.

 

    • Because of this, I would need to carefully cultivate a network of farms, local and mail-order, who grew completely no-spray produce. If the farm is mail-order I need to negotiate safe handling and packaging in transit. Even the less sensitive need to exercise care in where their produce comes from and what is done to it. For example, citric acid washes and gas ripening cause problems for many.

 

    • Since very few (or zero, if you’re in a cold climate) crops grow year-round, I would need to preserve what food I can eat while it is available so that I can eat it the rest of the year. This is something many people with a corn allergy need to do to some degree, not just the super-sensitive.

 

 

    • This preservation would take about 4-8 hours a week of my time throughout the year, depending on the season. This is one area where sensitivity will determine how much stockpiling you need to do, but then again your average person doesn’t need to do this at all.

 

    • In addition to the actual preservation work, I would need to spend at least 8 hours a week year-round researching new sources of food, creating backup sources of food I already have and trying to track my nutritional intake to prevent against malnutrition, and keeping up with product changes and what things the corn allergy community are reacting to or doing well with. When one is new to the allergy or has had a sensitivity uptick, the time spent is often much, much more. Many people spend years feeling like all they do is research how to eat food safely. This is true across all levels of sensitivity.

 

  • Oh and also work a full time job, either inside or outside the home. I am counting stay-at-home-parenthood and caring for oneself as a disabled person full time jobs.

That’s a lot already. And many of us are dealing with other intersecting health issues that limit our dietary choices or ability to prepare or afford certain foods.

Why is MY diet so limited?

Select from the “super sensitive” side of all of the points above, and add into it my other issues (MCAS, G6PD Deficiency), and you get a list that looks like this: What I Can Eat.

This is already not the most balanced diet, and I know it. I’m working very, very hard on better food sourcing  and even some healing protocols (sorry to be vague but I’m not discussing it until it works for me!) to try to fix this. But until then, this is what I have to work with.  Removing my fat and protein staples from that list is NOT a good plan healthwise in my opinion.

And then of course, there’s the quality of life/labor issue. Less animal-based protein and fat means less satiety, and also more veggies, fruits, nuts, and mushrooms to purchase (expensive and often just not readily available) and preserve (labor intensive, takes a ton of freezer space.) Because I’m allergic to most of the vegetables that grow in the winter, my preservation schedule is compressed between the months of June and November, meaning that I spend the summer and fall crunching on planning and putting food up for 8-16 hours a week during this period. On top of work.

As just one example, I have to shell my walnuts and pecans myself with the help of some friends. We’ve got it down to a science, but it still takes one person about 40 minutes to shell 1 lb of nuts.  And that’s just one food out of the dozen+ I need to put up.

At a certain point, you end up having to prioritize and go without some items when they aren’t in season.

There are also supply problems. I am not entirely sure that my source for walnuts will remain available to me. Each year I ask my friend in California to procure them for me, I am never certain if it will be the last time he’s able to do it. If he is unable to do it, I am faced with either going without, or flying down there myself to get them, pack them up, and ship them back to myself. That’s just one example of the kind of predicament people with corn allergies run into in sourcing safe food.

It’s not that I am against consuming fewer animal products. I would be happy to. I am not someone who delights in eating meat. But I don’t see how to do that in a physically and emotionally healthy way, and I do delight in being alive and somewhat functional.

I am, however, interested in whether it is possible.

If you think that it is possible to have a vegetarian or vegan diet with a highly sensitive corn allergy, here is my challenge.

Challenge 1:  Design a vegetarian (or vegan), truly corn-free diet.

Design a balanced diet that is corn free enough for the super sensitive. Meaning, it needs to be sourced entirely from spray-free farms.  No packaged or processed products whatsoever. No pre-ground flours, no pressed oils, no husked seeds or shelled nuts. I’ll allow penzey’s kosher flake salt and the Jovial olive oil, although grudgingly as there isn’t one brand of salt or oil every single person tolerates. You don’t have to go out and locate the local farms, I’ll go ahead and assume you can find them (even though this is more than half the battle for many of us). Just create the list of foods. If you would like to include foods that do not grow in your area, you will need to locate the mail-order farm, and you will need to contact them and verify that they are truly spray free.

Now write down the growing season of the foods in your area, and calculate how much of those foods you will need to put up  during that season to cover your diet plan through the rest of the year. Go ahead and allow yourself a diet plan that changes seasonally, as you’ll pretty much have to do it that way.

Then come up with an estimate of hours spent and space needed to keep the foods in your plan.

Next, run that diet plan by a certified nutritionist or through a nutritional calculator to verify that it’s truly balanced.

Lastly, sent that diet plan, including the geographical location, crop calendar, preservation schedule, hours spent, and space required, over to me via my gmail at cornallergygirl@gmail.com. I’ll verify that this diet can actually be followed based on the basic info I provided, and by checking that any mail order sources are actually tolerated by those with corn allergies (often we ask lots of questions and get what seem to be the right answer, then react anyway). If I find a problem, I’ll give you that feedback via email and allow you to make changes.

Once you’ve managed to achieve something corn free, balanced, and that seems possible to achieve, I will publish your response on this blog along with an apology to everyone who has suggested a vegetarian diet that I’ve dismissed, and you will be a hero of the corn allergy community, because you’ll probably have located at least one new source of safe food for us.

Bonus Challenge: Walk the walk.

If you are truly committed to the cause of vegetarianism, lead by example. Follow the diet you’ve come up with for one year, including sourcing the foods on that list direct from no-spray farms, and putting that food up in summer to be eaten during winter. Using corn safe preservation methods. Tell us about your experiences at the end of it. Please. Your reward for this will the utmost respect from me and the corn allergy community, and the satisfaction of knowing you’re an inspiration to others.

Challenge 2: Design a vegetarian diet for me.

Come up with vegetarian or vegan diet plan that is complete and balanced based on *my* restrictions as outlined on my list of safe foods.  You can only use what is on the list, nothing more.  Calculate the hours spent and space required to preserve as mentioned above and include the nutritional analysis. If you manage this, I will follow your diet plan for a year. But only if you do, too.

What My Winter Prep Looks Like

I can only eat food from a few specific farmers so I have to put up what is growing when it’s growing if I want to eat in the winter. You can learn about why this is by skimming through my Hidden Corn laundry list  and reading some of my corn-tamination posts on individual foods. Because of other allergies, my “lockdown season” has been from November until June. One of my farmer-mommies began planting some winter crops I could eat so my lockdown is now from about January to June.

People frequently want to know what it looks like when you can’t just run out and buy food for half the year, so I took these pictures. What I have put up I will probably eat about 60-70% of this year, to myself. The large volume is mostly because I can’t eat any grains or starches due to not having safe sources. Corn is my anaphylactic and most sensitive allergy but I am also allergic to eggs, soy, and dozens of vegetables including all of the ones that grow in cold weather such as broccoli and cabbage.
PLEASE NOTE that the mason jar lids shown here are NOT safe for canning for most and may not be safe for frozen or dried storage for many. The BPA free canning lids from Ball and Kerr contain a resin that contains some corn. I personally can jar things with them but cannot have stuff that was canned (boiled in hot water for a long time) with them.

All of my preserved food is frozen or dehydrated because in addition to the Ball/Kerr canning lids containing a corny resin, I also do not seem to tolerate the Tattler canning lids. Not sure if this is a corn issue or not. I have not yet tried the Weck jars although I will eventually. More (but not enough) on corn-free canning here.

ANOTHER NOTE for people buying freezers- you want MANUAL DEFROST for any long term storage. “Frost Free” freezers are dehumidifiers which will eventually freeze dry your meat if it is not in a 100% airtight seal. My safe meat packaging is ziplocks, so those are not true hermetic seals at all.  I also observe, although the internet at large contradicts me, that frost free freezers contribute to MUCH faster freezer burn in all of my food.  I have meat in my manual defrost freezer from well over a year ago that is still totally fine, and it wouldn’t last nearly that long in a frost free freezer.

 

 

Clockwise from upper left:

  1. Dry storage & lactoferments: home dried & ground paprika, dried tomatoes, dried sweet & hot peppers, dried tomatoes, celery, more dried tomatoes, spicy pickled cucumbers & ancho peppers on to ferment still.
  2. 20 cubic foot upright freezer #1: Jars upon jars of fruit purees, tomato sauce, foodsaver vacuum-sealed bags of green veggies, pear sauce, a LOT of peaches, frozen grapes, and berries.
  3. 20 cubic foot upright freezer #2: Cucumber juice (yes really), more tomato sauce, fruit purees, more peaches, berries, and some pecans I never got around to shelling because they are a pain in the rear.
  4. 20 cubic foot chest freezer: These really are the best for fitting way more than the same cubic foot in an upright, not accidentally leaving open slightly & losing a bunch of food, and not building up with frost as quickly. However omg keeping them organized. I used the inserts that come with the freezer for the bottom part and then stacked these sterilite bins on top so i can easily remove the bins and see what’s below. best I can do for organizing.
  5. 4.4 Cubic Foot “all fridge” minifridge. This is my backstock mini-fridge. I unplug it when I don’t  need to store more produce than my regular fridge can hold. At the time of this picture it contains cucumbers I need to process still, and pickled veggies that are done fermenting.

Barbecue Season: Grilling Out Corn Free

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.

Are All Lump Charcoals Safe?

Probably not. The issues I would be concerned about are:

  1. Quality control
  2. Packaging

Typically lump charcoal “should” be just fired wood, but depending on the source of the wood lots of other stuff could end up in there. Check out this FAQ about lump charcoal. 

“Since making lump charcoal is often done under somewhat crude conditions, it is normal to find a few rocks or pebbles in lump charcoal. However, a few other oddball items have been found like a mouse, human hair, a tootsie roll wrapper, varnished wood, and black shiny objects commonly referred to as moon rocks. Personally, in over two years and hundreds of pounds of lump charcoal, I’ve found 3 rocks and a tootsie roll wrapper. It shouldn’t be a great concern.”

Even if one isn’t concerned about allergens, that’s just kind of gross.

Then after that, it could be possible that the facilities are shared with something allergenic or whether the bags might be dusted with corn starch or made out of plant fiber or lined with corn plastic (PLA).

One could call and ask about all of these things, but I just guinea pigged the Royal Oak and it’s been okay, so I stick with it.

Cross Contamination

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.

I actually have to use a brand new corn-free grill, as I am so sensitive to cross contamination and traces that  corny foods cooked in an enclosed space like an oven or closed-top grill will stick to the walls in such a way that they contaminate other foods cooked in it. When I cleaned our grill top and tried to cook food on our old grill that had had the cornstarch-charcoal cooked in it, I was able to eat something that had been cooked for just a few minutes with the lid open, but reacted to a mushroom cooked for a long time with the lid closed.

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.

Eating Seasonally: Prepare for Flu Season now!

Elderberries are in season on the Pacific NW and may be in your area as well! If, like me, you’re too sensitive to traces and cross contamination to tolerate any of the prepackaged elderberry syrups or prepackaged dried elderberries, now is the time to stock up on the wild foraged stuff and freeze or dehydrate to make into syrup for the flu season. Not familiar with elderberries and why I’d want them for the winter?

Where to Get Them

What we have growing wild and native in the area is blue elderberry. There may be some folks growing black elderberry in the area, but I haven’t found them. Let me know if you know of any in the Western Washington area or even down in to Oregon. If you live outside of the Pacific NW, you may have a different species available to you. The most common species seems to be American Elder, which has a strong folk tradition of medicinal use, but please do your own research and don’t just go taking herbs on my say so.

Only black elderberry (sambucus nigra) has been officially studied for its medicinal effects but I am taking a chance on blue elderberry being as good for you since it’s what I have access to. There’s at least enough folk wisdom referenced about the use of blue elderberry for medicinal purposes to make me feel comfortable doing so. Foraged and Found Edibles at the Seattle Farmer’s market has them right now and hopefully will for a couple more weeks. I emailed ahead and asked them for 13lbs to pick up at the market and he had a box just all prepped for me to pick up when I arrived.

How to Process Elderberries

Note that the stems and unripe berries are toxic, so you will want to carefully pick over your berries and remove those. What I do is wash them and place them still on the stems on baking sheets in my freezer. Then when they’re frozen I take a fork and pull the berries off the stems and remove as many of the stems as I can. I flash freeze again since the berries have melted a bit while I do that, then pick over to get the last of the stems and green berries out and then put into quart bags to freeze. Some stems still make it into the bags so I will rinse them and sift yet again before using.

You could also dehydrate the berries. I just chose to freeze mine.

How to Use and How Much to Store

Here is the recipe I use to make elderberry syrup. 1 cup of berries should make 1.5 cup sof syrup, and 1.5 cups of syrup will make about 5-6 days of doses for one person at the recommended 1 tsp every 2-3 hours.  My 13 lbs of berries made about 8.5 quarts without the stems so that’s about 170 days of flu-level elderberry syrup doses, give or take. Should be plenty for two for the winter, heheh.

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Making Corn Free Hot Sauce

This will probably never be a recipe blog. I just don’t have enough safe foods to really have what you’d call “recipes.” Most of my meals consist of 3 safe foods prepared very simply, without cooking oils and with minimal spices. My taste buds are kind of broken after a long winter of very few foods I could tolerate, so these days the simplest things just taste wonderful to me. I’m okay with a number of things people find appalling to even consider: salad without dressing (if the ingredients are fresh and quality), cooked lettuce (tastes just like spinach!), food braised in water instead of sauteed in oil, and raw honey eaten by the spoonful as a snack.

But I do like some spice in my life, so of course my first post about food I *do* eat instead of food I *don’t* eat is about hot sauce.  I loooove hot sauce and put it on pretty much everything. The only time I refrain is when a food is still a “trial” item, as one of my first reactions is mouth and tongue burning and hot sauce confuses the issue. The sensation of spice is markedly different from the sensation of tongue swelling/burning, but I prefer to not confuse the issue.

Make sure to use safe-for-you ingredients. Peppers should be unwaxed and unsprayed. Vinegars, citrus juices, and additional vegetables and spices should be tested individually for safety before putting them in the recipe.

This is the first hot sauce I made, and followed the recipe exactly:  How to Make Hot Sauce on Omnomnomicon

It turned out wonderfully, but of course I am allergic to garlic now. Or, I reacted to several garlics, might still be corn. Haven’t checked.

Anyway since then I haven’t even been using a recipe- I chop the heads off of peppers and puree them with a vinegar (I use bragg’s apple cider vinegar and/or my own homemade kombucha vinegar, then heat on the stove for a time, probably 20-30 minutes, maybe longer if I’m getting in to a movie or something. (If you have an open kitchen, do this when it’s okay for the whole house to smell like hot vinegar.)

I taste-check every 10 minutes or so. Do this by dipping one tine of a fork in the sauce and barely licking it. Do NOT take a whole spoonful right away and do NOT stick your face over the pot to smell it. You’ll probably do this at least once without thinking, and regret it. Hot pepper and vinegar fumes are pretty caustic.

It’ll boil down over time, and I just taste and add more vinegar if needed and sort of spice up with whatever tastes good, then boil down more as needed until it tastes right to me. You’re basically trying to really infuse the vinegar with the peppers, then add other flavors and then cook just enough to infuse them without destroying them.

I think last time I added molasses, honey, salt, and a tiny bit of lemon juice at the end. I feel like maybe there was another spice there and that I told someone about it last week and they thought it was ingenious for me to put in hot sauce, but I can no longer remember.

But in general the recipe is very forgiving and you can get away with a LOT of experimentation. If you have a safe oven *, roasting the peppers first is really awesome for making a smokey taste.

Here is a recipe for hot sauce that involves lime juice instead of vinegar. Basically you just need some kind of acid.

*The oven in my rental house was baking corn into everything I made. I tried and tried to clean the death out of it, but eventually I just gave up and bought a really nice toaster oven

My Secret Grapefruit Ritual

Actually, it’s not a secret, and it’s not even my ritual. And it works for other citrus fruit as well. Half of it was taught to me as a child, and the other half was *just* suggested to me a couple of weeks ago.

But back up. Let’s talk about why I even have a grapefruit ritual. It’s because of the wax. Many fruits and vegetables, even organic ones, are waxed to preserve them and to improve their appearance before they hit the grocery stores/co-ops. The wax on organic fruits and vegetables is *supposed* to be from carnauba wax or shellac, which *should* be corn-free. Unfortunately, like many other things that *should* be corn free, they aren’t. I’m not totally sure what’s corny in them, but I suspect that the wax is mixed with a solvent like ethanol (from corn) to allow it to coat the fruit better, and then the ethanol evaporates leaving the wax and the corn particles behind.

Anyway, I haven’t ever really managed to peel a waxed apple, cucumber, zuchinni, or other thin-skinned fruit or veggie carefully enough to avoid contaminating the inside with wax residue from the peeling instrument. No matter how carefully I tried to peel them, I would end up getting some wax in my mouth and paying the price. So I just didn’t eat most fruit and many veggies out of season for a long time, opting instead to only eat produce from local farmers whom I could question about their practices. Then I became allergic to pretty much all winter vegetables, and I got hungry enough to get adventurous. With a little advice from some other adventurous corn allergics, I was able to arrive at a way to eat thick-skinned fruit like grapefruit safely.

This method is working for me. Your mileage may vary.
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