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Vegetable or grain?

Posted Friday, July 29, 2011, at 8:39 AM

Some call corn a vegetable, but farmers like my dad refer to it as a grain when feeding cattle. Well shucks, who is right?

The answer depends on when corn is harvested. Farmers typically feed livestock field corn, fully mature and dry. Dry corn is considered a whole grain.

Humans typically consume popcorn and sweet corn. We consume popcorn -- like livestock consume field corn -- when mature and dry. This makes popcorn a whole grain. Popcorn even makes a great whole grain snack -- as long as you don't add too much butter, sugar, or salt.

Unlike popcorn, we consume sweet corn in an immature stage. Immature corn has a high water content and falls into two healthy food groups -- vegetables and whole grains. A food that falls into two food groups, now I call that a twofur! 

According to the Whole Grains Council, corn has more than 10 times the Vitamin A found in other grains. An antioxidant, Vitamin A is good for your eyes, immune system, bones, and skin. Corn also contains B vitamins, iron, magnesium, and potassium; vitamins and minerals beneficial for energy levels, blood pressure, and overall good health.

The different varieties of corn offer various antioxidant phytonutrients. Yellow corn contains carotenoids (lutein and zeaxanthan), while blue corn -- often used in blue corn tortillas -- has anthocyanins. The carotenoids are good for eyes, immune system, and skin; anthocyanins are good for decreasing risks for cancer, stroke, and heart disease.

The USDA's standard serving size for whole kernel corn is 1/2 cup (82g). This 1/2 cup contains 20g of whole grain, 1g of fat, 21g of carbohydrate, 2g of fiber, and 3g of protein.

Persons with diabetes are occasionally advised to avoid whole kernel corn because of its high starch content. This advice sometimes leads to a bad rap for corn. As with all carbohydrate containing foods, persons with diabetes need to know carbohydrate exchanges (1/2 cup corn = 21g carbohydrate or 1 1/2 carbohydrate exchanges) and then plan their meals and serving sizes accordingly.

When consumed as part of a balanced meal, the protein, fiber, and fat in whole kernel corn slows down the digestion of carbohydrates, reducing blood sugar spikes and crashes.

To maximize the health benefits you reap from corn products, choose corn products that say whole grain corn, popcorn, whole grain cornmeal, and whole grain corn flour (masa harina).

When refined, corn is less healthy than the whole grain products. Products made with refined corn will list ingredients such as degerminated corn, corn meal, enriched cornmeal, corn flour, and corn starch. Also, we can't forget high fructose corn syrup, but that's a blog of its own.

From Worthington, Tracey is a Registered Dietitian. She currently lives in Arlington, Va., with her husband, Ed and three children, Lilly, Charlie, and Kate. For additional nutrition tips, recipes, menu ideas, articles, and more, follow her on Facebook at Tracey Linneweber, RD. The information contained in this blog is not meant to substitute for your physician's advice.



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