"Does corn contain gluten?" is a question often asked by newcomers to the gluten free diet.
Although corn, like wheat, rye and barley, does have a protein content it does not cause harmful effects to the intestines of someone with celiac disease.
Therefore it is considered safe for celiacs to eat from a gluten perspective. However, many celiacs can have an intolerance to corn, so it is best not to rely on it too heavily as a substitute for wheat flour.
Corn, or maize as the plant is called, is the largest cereal grain and is native to the Americas.
The grain can be eaten as a vegetable, known as corn on the cob or sweetcorn, as well as being ground into flour. Corn on the cob has a medium Glycemic index (GI) of 55 whereas once processed into cornmeal the GI goes up to 69 - something to keep in mind if you also suffer from diabetes as well as celiac disease.
Finely ground maize is known as cornflour here in the UK, or cornstarch in the USA.
If you run this white powder through your fingers it has a soft feel and a distinctive sound.
It is ideal for thickening sauces, gravies or soups, but is best mixed into a paste with a little cold water, before it is added to the other ingredients, otherwise you can end up with lumps!
Yellow cornmeal, on the other hand, is coarsely ground. I use this in my cornmeal pancakes recipe.
Let's look at how the products of the maize crop are used around the world and whether their preparation means the finished products are gluten free or not.
Being an indigenous plant, cornmeal is utilized in many ways in the USA. A popular use is in cornbread - a quick bread made with baking powder rather than yeast - for which there are many localized variations.
Cornbread is also used as a stuffing (inside the bird) or dressing (cooked separately) to serve with the Thanksgiving turkey. Do be aware that some cornbread recipes include wheat flour, and are therefore not gluten free.
In the Southern United States corn grits is popular as a side dish or breakfast cereal.
This is made from hominy, which is the hulled grain from which the bran and germ has been removed. Before cooking, the grits resemble fine sand, but when cooked the dish has a smooth texture.Going further south, the corn tortilla from Mexico is simple to make at home. A Tortilla Press is handy, however, to ensure these are a good shape and of uniform thickness.
Travel to Jamaica and you are likely to be offered one of their favorite treats, Cornmeal Pudding, but once again this can contain wheat flour so beware.
Polenta is an Italian dish, where traditionally the cornmeal is cooked slowly for a long time whilst being stirred. Cooked polenta can be shaped and fried or grilled. Plain polenta has a bland taste therefore many modern polenta recipes include cheese or tomato sauce.
If you buy popping corn and prepare it at home, then you can certainly include it in your gluten free diet (as long as you are not allergic to corn of course).
However, there is a risk of contamination if you purchase ready made popcorn.
Always ensure that you read the ingredients list carefully before assuming that popcorn is safe to eat. If you are not sure what unsafe ingredients to look out for check the table on my avoid gluten page.
Many brands of corn flakes include barley malt extract flavorings.
Barley malt extract is not the same as barley malt. Because the amount of barley malt extract or flavoring used in corn flakes and other breakfast cereals is tiny it can be tolerated by some people with celiac disease, but the label on the product must state that it contains barley.
Some manufacturers are now producing cornflakes that are certified gluten free, such as Nestle in the UK and Kosher Mills in the USA.
Malt is commonly made from barley, a grain containing gluten. The grain is steeped in water then allowed to germinate and after around 4-6 days it is heated to stop the germination process from continuing. The grain is then dried, then "Kilned" at an even higher temperature until the correct colour is achieved.
After all this treatment the grain is now called Malt. At this stage any rootlets that had grown are removed before being used for its end purpose.
The malt has a higher protein (gluten) content than the original barley weight for weight. This is why products such as malt vinegar and malted milk drinks like Horlicks, are not permitted on the gluten free diet.