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Soy and Corn: Healthy Choices or Hidden Ingredients?!

Corn and soy can be wholesome and delicious. They're two of the most versatile and popular staples in the world; they're rich in vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber. They're also widely available in the U.S.—in fact combined, corn and soy make up just over half of the crops grown in our country.

For many, nothing says "summer" more than delicious sweet corn on the cob. And, sweet, nutty flavored edamame (green soybeans, long popular in East Asia), has fast become a favorite in the U.S. (not to mention tofu and other soy products for meat and milk substitutes). These foods are considered healthy and nutritious. But whether or not you eat these particular foods, you're still likely eating a lot of "hidden" corn and soy. That's because corn and soy are widely used in a host of processed foods. In fact, according to Michael Pollan, corn makes up about 554 calories per day in Americans' daily diets with soy making up 257 calories.

The USDA recommends an average intake of 2,000 calories for adults (though it varies, by age, gender, exercise level, etc.), so corn and soy's 811 calories combined make up 40 percent of the average recommended daily allowance. There is wide consensus among nutrition experts and health advocates that eating a varied diet is an important part of maintaining good health. Ensuring more variety in your diet is just one of the reasons you might want to keep an eye on how much corn and soy you eat.

Corn and Soy Facts

Corn and soy are grown around the world. They are some of the most efficient plants when it comes to transforming sunlight and chemical fertilizer into carbohydrate energy (in the case of corn) and fat and protein (in the case of soy).

Corn

  • Sweet corn (fresh, frozen or canned) grown in 2009 makes up just 3/4 of a percent of all corn planted in the U.S.
  • How is corn used? In 2009, U.S, corn crops were used as animal feed (42.5%), ethanol (32%), export (16%), high-fructose corn syrup (3.5%), other (6%).
  • About 87 million acres of corn were planted in the U.S. in 2009.
  • In 2007, 94 million acres of corn were planted, about 23% of total U.S. cropland.

Soy

  • The majority of soybeans grown in the U.S., 98 percent, are used for animal feed and soybean oil (the soybeans are crushed to extract the oil; the remnants of the soybean are used for animal feed).
  • The remaining two percent of soybeans are used for human consumption in foods like baked goods and meat substitutes.
  • Over 77 million acres of soybeans were planted in 2009.
  • In 2007, almost 65 million acres of soy were planted, about 16% of total U.S. cropland.

Sources:
Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food
National Corn Growers Asscociation
USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service

There are other times, too, when you'll want to know that corn or soy derivatives (ingredients made from corn or soy) are in your food. One, of course, is if you're allergic to either. Another is if you're trying to avoid foods that are high in sugar and empty calories (corn derivatives, in particular, are sometimes used as "filler" in food production and provide very little nutritional value). Finally, you'll want to be alert for corn and soy derivatives if you're trying to avoid foods that are genetically engineered (GE). Currently, an estimated 93 percent of soybeans and 70 percent of corn commercially cultivated in the U.S. are genetically engineered. And their inclusion in foodsfrom salad dressings and baby formula to meats and margarineis ubiquitous.

So how can you identify these derivatives? Well, because soy is one of the eight most common allergens, food manufacturers are required to state its inclusion clearly on their food labels. This isn't true of corn, though, and corn appears in many derivatives. If you're trying to identify corn and soy derivatives to avoid allergens, lower nutritional value products and/or GE foods, familiarity with the names of corn and soy derivatives will help in your detective work (though, if you are seeking to avoid GE foods, certified organic foods, which prohibit their use, are a good option).

Here are some of the ingredients to look for if you want to avoid corn derivatives: citric acid, confectioner's sugar, corn flour, corn fructose, corn meal, corn oil, corn syrup, dextrin and dextrose, fructose, lactic acid, malt, mono- and diglycerides, monosodium glutamate, sorbitol, and starch (baking powder usually contains cornstarch, by the way). Many vitamins also contain corn.

Here are some of the foods that are likely to contain soy: bulking agents, carob, emulsifiers, guar gum, natural flavors, shoyu, soy beverages, soy flour, soy lecithin, soy miso, soy protein concentrate or isolate, soy sauce, soybean oil, stabilizer, tamari, tempeh, texturized vegetable protein, vegetable broth, and vegetable gum.

Bottom line: Take big bites of that fresh corn on the cob or edamame salad for good health. But be more cautious when it comes to eating corn and soy derivatives.

Have you been surprised to find corn and soy in some of the food you eat? Are there any other hidden ingredients you've been surprised to find?

Tags: corn, soy