Surprising Facts About Corn, Popcorn, and Malnutrition

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corn, popcorn, and malnutritionThis is the first in a two-part series addressing the practice of making homemade cornmeal out of popcorn. In this first part I will address the dietetic science that shows why this is a bad idea and some surprising facts about corn, popcorn and malnutrition. The second part will address other things that can be done with corn that are much better for you than grinding it into cornmeal.

All about corn, popcorn, and malnutrition

Regular pre-ground cornmeal has a relatively short shelf-life. Five years is the usual rule of thumb. Unpopped popcorn, however, can be stored for decades under the right conditions. Someone put two and two together and figured that grinding popcorn into cornmeal as needed would be a decent solution to this problem. I’ve heard people insist that it is more nutritious than cornmeal from the store, “…which has the bran removed,” and that it tastes better.

I must admit that I have not tried it myself, so I can’t say that I can speak with authority about the taste, but I will tell you that it is not nutritious. In fact, if you made ground popcorn your primary staple you will put yourself at risk for contracting a lovely little disease called pellagra. Pellagra and its relationship with corn is one of those things that intersects food, history, and science.

Popped popcorn, when it is not smothered in fake butter and preservatives, is very good for you. It is high in niacin and fiber, and low in calories. Corn tortillas made from cornmeal, have undergone processing of their own and are similarly nutritious. The peoples of Pre-Columbian America built their empires on corn.

If a corn tortilla is good for you, corn muffins from ground popcorn must be just as good, right? Wrong.

Prior to processing, the nutrients found in corn, niacin, in particular, are inaccessible to the human body. In order for our bodies to absorb all the good stuff, corn must be either cooked with an alkali to form nixtamal (pronounced “neesh-tamal”), or popped. Eating corn meal from unnixtamalized field corn or unpopped popcorn is nutritionally equivalent to eating a cardboard box.

When corn was first brought back to Europe from the New World, Europeans really liked the idea of eating corn. Unfortunately, they didn’t understand the value of nixtamalization. To them, it was an unnecessary step. In places where corn became the primary staple, people started getting this “strange disease” that caused skin lesions, neurological problems, and death. This disease was pellagra. In the Southern United States alone, pellagra accounted for more than 100,000 deaths. Pellagra was also widespread in Spain, France, and Italy. Only in the early 20th Century did scientists figure out that pellagra was caused not by a toxin found in corn, as previously thought, but a niacin deficiency.

This is the reason why food companies fortify our breakfast cereals. If you grab a box of cornflakes, in particular, or regular store bought cornmeal, you’ll find niacin and folic acid on the list of ingredients. This does not constitute the native vitamins already found in corn, but synthetics that are sprayed on. Those spray-on vitamins are both a good and a bad thing. Good because when the FDA began to require niacin fortification in cornmeal, pellagra all but disappeared in the United States. Bad because there is some concern that synthetic vitamins do not behave the same way inside the human body.

Additionally, many nutritionists caution against eating highly processed foods that have more than 5-10 ingredients on the label, which leads some to actively search out unfortified corn products. Thrive Life Cornmeal, for example, lists only one ingredient on its cans of cornmeal: Ground Yellow Dent Corn.

This is not a step towards better health

Grinding popcorn for cornmeal is not going to be any better for you than grinding dent corn. In fact, it would be worse because the structure of a popcorn kernel is different from a dent corn kernel. Popcorn has a much thicker pericarp – that’s the bit that gets stuck in your teeth – and a much smaller amount of starch per kernel.

If you have a reasonably well-balanced diet, it’s unlikely that you or anyone you know will actually develop pellagra and die from the odd batch of cornmeal made from unfortified corn. But don’t kid yourself: cornmeal, and especially popcorn cornmeal, is empty calories. That’s a luxury that will come at too high a price in a survival situation, where you must make every calorie count towards optimal nutrition.

Cornmeal in your food storage pantry isn’t a bad thing, but add other foods rich in Vitamin B3 and, in fact, B3 nutritional supplements as well. Food to consider are:

  • Asparagus
  • Avocado
  • Broccoli
  • Coffee
  • Kidney beans
  • Meat, chicken, and tuna
  • Mushrooms
  • Peanuts
  • Peas
  • Sunflower Seeds

This is not to say that you should not store popcorn at all. When properly stored, popcorn can have a shelf-life of 15-20 years. Be sure to also store a small amount of (regularly rotated!) cooking oil or other fat along with it, so that you can pop it.

Stay tuned for my Part Two popcorn article, in which I will talk a little more about what you can (and should!) do with corn that will keep you well-fed and healthy: nixtamalization, masa, and tortillas.

For further reading, I recommend, Red Madness by Gail Jarrow, about Pellagra in the deep South and “Pellagra: Curse of the Unprepared“, an article by Liz Bennett.

corn, popcorn, and malnutrition



23 thoughts on “Surprising Facts About Corn, Popcorn, and Malnutrition”

  1. Wow! What a great article! I recently had serious health issues which caused me to fear for my life, and all of the trouble was related to nutrient deficiency. It has really caused me to take a better look at my diet. Thanks for the info. I can’t wait for part two!

  2. My children and I carry a genetic mutation called mthfr where we cannot process synthetic folate, so all that packaged food just makes us feel even crappier. I’m so glad we got tested so we can treat the problem and avoid further problems.

    1. The Survival Mom

      I’ve not heard of that before, Sarah. I wonder how many other people out there have the same mutation and don’t realize that eating healthier foods might help them feel better.

    2. I also have that mutation. In fact, I have to take methylated B vitamins in order to be able to absorb them.

    1. There is a second part to this coming later in the week which will discuss masa and nixtamal. Thanks for posting!

  3. Thank you! I have wondered about this. I thought it was a bad idea to store popcorn for grinding. I am glad you are spreading the word!

  4. Wow, that is really sad news, because ground popcorn really does taste so much better in cornbread.

  5. Pellagra is not a disease. It is a vitamin deficiency. The problem would be in depending on corn for all your nutrients. Eating a balanced diet would solve the problem. There aren’t many foods that you could eat exclusively and get all your nutrients. Just as I wouldn’t blame apples for not giving me enough protein and say it is not a good food, I won’t blame corn either.

    1. I use “disease” in the article to describe pellagra because that is how it was classified during the period where it was endemic in the United States.

      I think it is appropriate to emphasize that corn, prepared improperly, is not a valid source of proper nutrition. Skittles, taken in moderation, will not kill you or cause you to develop vitamin deficiency. But we don’t kid ourselves that skittles are good for you. Unfortified, plain, ground corn is not good for you, either. Period.

      1. Beth,
        Thanks for the article, lots of good info. However “Unfortified, plain, ground corn is not good for you, either. Period.” is not fully correct. Yes nixtamalization maximizes the B Vitamin availability of corn, but even without it corn and corn meal provide a substantial amount of protein, minerals such as zinc, potassium and magnesium and other vitamins such as A and E. Because of this it is certainly good for us and contributes to good health.

        1. Honestly, Jay, I had not considered the mineral content of corn. Most of the literature I consumed while researching this article focused on niacin and did not mention other nutrients. Thanks for posting!

      2. You know, on second thought, the comparison to skittles is slightly ridiculous (if delightfully hyperbolic!). A fairer comparison would be macaroni and cheese. This also contains iron and calcium, but is not widely considered to be a super food.

      3. As a physician I agree that pellagra is not a disease, just as scurvy and rickets are not diseases but CONSEQUENCES of dietary deficiencies (Vitamin C and D respectively.) I also must disagree with your characterization of ground corn being a poor storage food. Yes, certainly relying on corn as your ONLY food source would be bad, as would relying on rice or wheat, or even beef alone. The native Hispanic cultures have known for generations that adding beans to a corn recipe made it healthy and nutritious, as it now contains complete proteins and you can live on it exclusively, even if it is boring.

        While nixtamalization is a valuable skill to know, to state that the ONLY way to process stored corn is by this method is doing your readers a disservice. As long as proper nutrition is sought after, and one knows that corn is not a complete protein in and of itself, you should be able tp store and utilize corn in your storage pantry without problems.

  6. Just as an experiment, I ground some popcorn and made cornbread with it. We nearly broke teeth on the larger particles ! It didn’t taste as good as cornmeal, either. I’m going to look for dent corn for grinding.

    Ask your doc to test for nutritional deficiencies every time you have a physical! Vitamins B and D deficiencies are very common.

  7. Renee Schmucker

    My grandmother died of Pellegra in 1937, so don’t be fooled into thinking that is strange never happening occurence. It is real and it happens.

  8. Hi! I’m wondering what sources you have for saying that popping corn makes the niacin accessible? I’d love to know more and I’ve never heard that.

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