Is Corn Healthy?

Is Corn Healthy?
Chelsea Clark

Corn is a common food featured in summer barbecues, Mexican feasts, and even just weeknight dinners as an easy side dish. But is corn really that good for you, and does it have anything going for it when it comes to health?

It turns out that while corn does have some health benefits, it’s also best to eat it in moderation. Read on to find out more.

What is corn?

Corn is the leading cereal crop in the world, and it was first cultivated between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago in what is now Mexico. It has since served as a staple in areas like Latin America, Africa, and Asia.[1,2]

There are many different ways to consume corn, and corn actually fits the definition of both a vegetable and a grain.

Cooked corn is usually what we think of as a vegetable, and it is most often eaten on the cob or cut off the cob as a side. Dried whole corn kernels are considered a whole grain, and they can be popped into popcorn or milled to produce things like grits, corn meal, and corn flour. These can be made into food products like tortillas, chips, cornbread, and more. Other processed ingredients that can be made from corn include corn starch, corn, oil, and corn syrup.[1]

Usually you will see white or yellow corn when you go to buy it at the store or market, but it comes in many different varieties and can also be blue, purple, or red.

Is corn healthy?

Corn is made up mostly of starch, and it also contains some protein, some fiber, and low amounts of fat.[1]

In one medium ear of corn, you’ll get:

  • 98 calories
  • 3.51 grams of carbs
  • 1.54 grams of fat
  • 4.68 grams of sugar [3]

Eating corn can have both pros and cons when it comes to health. Here’s the good and the bad:

The good: it provides healthy nutrients

Corn is a source of healthy nutrients. These include:

It’s also somewhat low in calories, making it a good way to get some of these important nutrients into your diet without overloading your calorie intake.

Corn is healthiest when it is eaten as close to its natural growing form as possible, either on the cob, as cooked kernels, or freshly milled.

The bad: it can raise your blood sugar

While corn does contain a variety of nutrients, it is ultimately a very starchy vegetable. Because corn is made up mostly of starch, it is a high-carbohydrate food that can spike blood sugar levels. For people with prediabetes, insulin resistance, or diabetes, that’s not a good thing.

The amount your blood sugar will raise does depend on what form of corn you choose to consume. Let’s take a look at the glycemic index (a measure of how much a food affects your blood sugar levels) of common corn products:

  • Corn tortilla: 46
  • Sweet corn: 52
  • Popcorn: 65
  • Cornflakes: 81 [5]

Sweet corn and corn tortillas are considered low on the glycemic index, popcorn medium, and cornflakes high.[5] Corn products have similar glycemic indexes to wheat, and have lower glycemic indexes compared to rice-based products.[1]

In general, the more refined the corn (as with cornflakes) the higher the glycemic index will be, as there is less fiber and other nutrients to prevent blood sugar spikes. Products like corn on the cob and popcorn, on the other hand, contain the whole kernel with more fiber and other nutrients to help stabilize blood sugars.

Corn is very starchy and higher in carbs than other vegetables and some grains. But that being said, the American Diabetes Association still considers corn as among the “best choices of starchy vegetables,” and they consider whole grain corn, cornmeal, and popcorn as among the “best choices of whole grain foods.” Corn products like these are lower in unhealthy nutrients like trans fats, sugar, and sodium and have more nutrients compared to other options in those categories.[6]

 Healthy ways to eat corn

Corn has its benefits, including providing healthy nutrients like B vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber. But it also has its downsides, like being high in carbohydrates and having the potential to create harmful blood sugar swings.

Ultimately, corn can be included in a healthy diet, but you’ll want to be sure to eat it responsibly.

Here are some tips to follow to make sure you are making healthy choices with corn consumption:

  • Watch your serving sizes. Keep in mind serving sizes when dishing up your corn; the more you eat, the higher the potential for unhealthy blood sugar swings. This is especially true if you have prediabetes or diabetes, because you’ll want to be extra careful with high-carbohydrate foods.
  • Count your corn carbs. Remember, although corn is considered a vegetable, corn products are very starchy and can be very high in carbohydrates. If you have prediabetes or diabetes you’ll want to limit your overall carb intake each day, and you’ll want to be sure to include each corn serving as a carb, not just a veggie. To give you an idea, about one half cup of corn contains about 15 grams of carbohydrates.[4]
  • Eat corn with a balanced meal. Make sure to eat corn along with healthy vegetables for more fiber, a good source of protein, and some healthy fat. Pairing corn with other healthy foods can help to keep your blood sugar swings in check and make for a well-rounded and healthy meal.
  • Avoid highly-processed corn products. Corn that has gone through heavy food processing to make things like corn flakes or sweet cornbread is not the type of corn you want to include in your diet. Processed corn products usually contain other unhealthy ingredients like added sugar, salt, or fat. Plus, the corn itself has gone through so much processing at that point that the good nutrients like fiber have usually been removed.
  • Go for whole-grain corn. Eating fresh whole corn on the cob, cooked corn as a side dish, or popcorn gives you the whole package of this plant food – all nutrients intact. These whole-food options are the healthiest choices when it comes to eating corn.

Not sure how to prepare your corn? Here are some ideas for including corn in a healthy diet:

  • Grill fresh corn on the barbecue, and season it with a touch of salt and a little spicy seasoning. Split large ears in half to reduce the serving size.
  • Add whole corn kernels to salads, soups, and other dishes for a colorful and flavorful addition.
  • Snack on a bowl of air-popped popcorn with a little bit of cheese sprinkled on top.
  • Choose whole-grain corn cereal that is unsweetened. Eat with milk and fresh berries.
  • Fill whole-grain corn tortillas with your choice of protein, beans, veggies, avocado, and salsa.
  • Try making your own corn tortillas with ground corn flour, water, and just a touch of salt.
  • Mix cooked corn with black beans, chopped bell peppers, and a tasty dressing to make a festive side salad.

The verdict on corn

Corn can provide you with healthy nutrients, but it is also high in carbs and can come with a downside.

While corn is very starchy and contains a fair amount of carbs per serving, it can still be included in a healthy diet. Just be sure to eat it in moderation, choose whole-food corn products instead of highly processed ones, and pair it with other healthy foods. All of that will help to minimize how much corn affects your blood sugar, allowing you to take advantage of corn’s delicious flavor and other health benefits.

Consider the healthy ways to eat corn listed above and give a few new recipes a try the next time you want to mix it up.