Corn, a centerpiece of the Native American diet, was a marvel of biotech engineering before the European settlers arrived. Native Americans encouraged the formation of ears or cobs on maize, a rather grass-like plant. While pre-European corn was self-sustaining, the varieties we grow now need human intervention to flourish. It needs continual replanting.

Today we mainly rely on one type of yellow corn, but Native Americans used corn that came in many colors and varieties. Flint corn or Indian corn can be red, blue, yellow or white and is a hardy corn growing in diverse climates. Popcorn is a type of flint corn. Sweet corn, which contains more sugar than other types of corn, is usually yellow or white and used for table eating. And field corn or dent corn contains more starch than other types and is grown for livestock feed.

For human consumption, corn should be soaked in lye or lime water until the outer shell of the kernel slips easily off. When the husk is lifted in a process called “skinning the corn” the B vitamin niacin, as well as other nutrients, become available for assimilation. Niacin is necessary for the metabolism of carbohydrates, fat and alcohol as well as the proper function of the nerves and the digestive system. The consumption of corn that has not been treated in the traditional manner can lead to pellagra, a niacin deficiency. The symptoms of pellagra include the three D’s: diarrhea, dermatitis, and dementia. Sufferers also often experience a sore, swollen tongue (Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2004;13(Suppl):S176). Today, this deficiency disease is found among folks who dine primarily on processed or fast foods, who eat corn which has not had the niacin released or been skinned, and who drink alcohol to excess (Nutrition. 2004 Sep;20(9):778-82).

Researchers have also found that we need niacin for other reasons: lower total cholesterol, more high density lipoproteins (good cholesterol) and a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease (Harvard Health Pub. 10/04: Harvard Heart Letter).