Corn Allergy 101

As a Nutrition Specialist here at Nutricia North America, I spend a lot of time talking to patients, caregivers, and healthcare professionals. Some of the questions I receive most often are “Do Neocate products contain any ingredients derived from corn?” and “Are Neocate products safe for an individual with a corn allergy?”

These are questions and topics you should absolutely discuss with your healthcare team. I’ll try to help by explaining a bit more about corn allergy, and then discuss the corn ingredients used in Neocate products.

Corn Protein Allergy

True corn allergies happen when the immune system reacts to the protein in corn, so you could call them a corn protein allergy. We don’t know how many people have a true corn allergy, because there’s been limited research (but some research does exist). Consult a board-certified allergist to identify the right allergy tests and diagnose any food allergy.

A true corn protein allergy can be difficult to diagnose through traditional methods. (Some individuals seem to be sensitive to the carbohydrate in corn, which is hard to diagnose and not well understood.) If your allergist suspects a corn allergy, he/she may recommend a food elimination diet in which you avoid corn and many derivatives of corn for a given period of time (often two to four weeks). During this time, your symptoms will be monitored to determine if there is any improvement while corn is eliminated from the diet.

The next step might be to reintroduce corn foods to your diet to see if symptoms reoccur: an “oral food challenge.” If you’ve had severe allergic reactions to food in the past, the allergist may want you to do it in her/his office as an extra precaution. Adding corn foods back into your diet is the best, most reliable way to confirm that the corn was the true culprit. However, it may seem excessive if your symptoms improved on the corn elimination diet. If the allergist diagnoses a corn allergy, the prognosis would be completely avoiding corn and many ingredients made from corn.

Avoiding Corn

Corn is not among the top eight food allergens in the United States, for which special label information is required by the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) of 2004. Food labels do not have to declare whether ingredients come from corn. Even more difficult, many ingredients in convenience foods can come from corn without being obvious. That’s why it’s important that anyone diagnosed with a corn allergy ask the allergist specifically what ingredients to avoid. A registered dietitian nutritionist can also help provide education on a corn elimination diet.

Some ingredients, which are more refined and contain trace or undetectable amounts of corn protein, may be acceptable for some patients with a corn protein allergy. Thresholds for tolerance vary. Always ask your allergist or dietitian for guidance on what corn ingredients to avoid. To get started, here are some common ingredients in foods that are or may be derived from corn:

  • Corn starch
  • Corn syrup
  • Maltodextrin
  • Vegetable oil
  • Cellulose
  • Caramel

Please note, these are just a few examples and not a comprehensive list of ingredients derived from corn. If you are ever unsure if an ingredient is from corn or if you should avoid it, contact the manufacturer to ask if the ingredient is from corn.

Neocate Corn FAQs

Now that we’ve covered the basics of a corn protein allergy, let’s address these frequently asked questions. The primary carbohydrate source in each of our Neocate products comes from corn:

  • Powdered Neocate products contain corn syrup solids
  • Neocate Splash contains maltodextrin (from corn)
  • Maltodextrin is structurally similar to corn syrup solids, though slightly more refined and broken down.
  • Some of the carbohydrate in Neocate Splash comes from sucrose (table sugar) that comes from beets. That means there is less overall carbohydrate from corn in these products vs. Neocate powder products, calorie-for-calorie.

Carbohydrates are essential for life, so carbohydrate ingredients are in every nutritionally complete formula.

  • Formulas that do not contain any carbohydrate are only for rare disorders which need extremely special diets.
  • Corn-derived carbohydrates are in nutritional formulas as a carbohydrate source because they offer a blend of both simple and complex carbohydrates.
  • The body digests and absorbs simple carbohydrates rapidly, and complex carbohydrates more gradually.
  • In Neocate products, the carbohydrates are in balance with amino acids (the protein source) and fat to provide balanced nutrition.
  • All Neocate products contain corn-derived ingredients.

The carbohydrates used in all Neocate products go through a multi-step refinement process that includes purification, distillation and drying. This process removes some of the impurities, including protein and fat, that are naturally present in corn. As proteins are what the body responds to in a typical allergic reaction, this reduces the part of corn that triggers corn protein allergy reactions.

With that said, we cannot claim that our Neocate products are completely “corn-protein free.” In order to make such a claim, we would need to regularly test for the presence of corn protein. At this time, there is no validated lab test for corn protein. We cannot say with certainty that Neocate is “safe” for you or your child – that’s a question for your healthcare team.

It is important to note that leaders in food allergy diagnosis and management indicate that true corn protein allergy is not common. They also find that corn syrup solids are typically tolerated by patients with corn allergies with no allergy symptoms. In practice, these healthcare teams do not counsel patients with corn protein allergy to avoid corn syrup solids.

If you have questions about the safety of corn syrup solids or maltodextrin in Neocate, discuss this with your allergist. They may recommend a supervised trial of a corn elimination diet or other testing to see if Neocate is appropriate. Someone who doesn’t tolerate corn carbohydrates would probably not tolerate maltodextrin (from corn) or corn syrup solids. They also probably wouldn’t tolerate one better than the other.

Since we’re on the topic of corn, I’ll mention a fact that matters to many Neocate families: the corn syrup solids in Neocate products do not contain fructose. Also, corn syrup solids are not the same as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). HFCS is made from corn starch in which about half of the glucose molecules were chemically changed to fructose. Many consumers prefer to avoid HFCS and we do not use this ingredient in Neocate products.

-Kendra Valle, RDN

Image source: Liz West

Last updated January 9, 2020

Published: 04/09/2015
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