For those new to corn allergy and intolerance, salad seems like an innocuous choice. They assume that if they must eat out, a nice chef’s salad without the dressing or the croutons will meet their needs for safe food and social propriety.
And then they react.
Salads look very safe. They consist of greens, maybe tomatoes or carrots or olives. Sometimes there are eggs, or nuts, or seeds. Occassionally you can see bright yellow corn kernels or lovely steamed baby corn; but those are visible and easy to avoid. (If you have an allergy to corn, don’t even bother picking it out of your meal. There will be residual particles that aren’t safe.)
Many restaurants rely upon bagged salad mixes to help speed up their production process. Open the bag, add a few key elements, you have an instant mixed salad. Even if they rinse it first, it’s still bagged pre-washed salad. And that’s where the trouble comes in.
Most pre-washes include more than simple water. They have a bit, just a bit, of citric acid. This helps to sterilize any germs that might have come into contact with the greens on the field or in transit, and also helps to prevent discoloration of trimmed leaves. Since the E. Coli outbreak of a few years ago, more bagged salad companies seem to be using the triple wash approach…chlorine, citric acid, water. Leaves are then spun dry in gigantic salad spinners.
Nothing in the prewash is dangerous to the public in general. But the traces of citric acid that do remain may cause trouble for those with corn or citric acid intolerances. (Citric acid is often derived from corn.) Although citric acid does not contain corn proteins, many individuals with a diagnosis of “corn allergy” report reactions. This may be because corn reactions do not seem to react in the same way that reactions to the better known foods (such as peanuts) do.
It’s also worth noting that there are some reports of citric acid being used on ice; which is used to keep produce cold in stores. And that there is an increasing popularity of “earth-friendly” packaging…which is a fancy term for “plastic made from corn”. Whether or not these packages will pose a danger to you, a corn allergic individual, is debatable and will depend on whether the bag has had a chance to begin decomposing and how sensitive you are. Of course, the only way to know for sure is to try it. And for many of us, that’s the equivalent of playing russian roulette.
So how to enjoy salad again?
Look for the dirt. The safest greens are ones that are fresh from the farm, with dirt still clinging to their leaves. Bring them home, rinse them in your own bowl full of vinegar and water, rinse thoroughly and dry. It’s not as convenient as the bag, but being sick isn’t very convenient either. If your store doesn’t seem to carry safe greens, look up local farmer’s markets.