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The Maize Contribution in the Human Health

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Chapter 3
The Maize Contribution in the Human Health
Bañuelos-Pineda Jacinto,
Gómez-Rodiles Carmen Cecilia,
Cuéllar-José Ricardo and Aguirre López Luis Octavio
Additional information is available at the end of the chapter
http://dx.doi.org/10.5772/intechopen.78700
Provisional chapter
DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.78700
© 2016 The Author(s). Licensee InTech. This chapter is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons
Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0), which permits unrestricted use,
distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
The Maize Contribution in the Human Health
Bañuelos-PinedaJacinto,
Gómez-RodilesCarmenCecilia,
Cuéllar-JoséRicardo and AguirreLópezLuisOctavio
Additional information is available at the end of the chapter
Abstract
Maize (Zea mays) is a cereal very important around the world and is a fundamental ele-
ment of the Mexican cuisine. The basis of Mexican traditional food is maize prepared
by the process of “nixtamalización” which conserves the properties of the whole grain
cereal. The phytochemical proles of Z. mays contain total phenolics, ferulic acid, carot-
enoids, and avonoids called anthocyanins. It is generally accepted that anthocyanin
food colors do not exert obvious toxicity, teratogenicity, or mutagenicity and, indeed,
anthocyanins may inhibit mutagenesis. Nutraceutical properties of phenolic and antho-
cyanin compounds in the maize that oer antioxidant activities is shown in ve types of
corn (white, yellow, high carotenoid, blue, and red). Therefore, the consumption of maize
or its derivates such as tortillas, tortilla chips, etc., become functional food, with the abil-
ity to be used to prevent the incidence of diseases such as cancer, diabetes, obesity, and
neurodegenerative disorders. Likewise, a diet that includes corn can be used during the
management of these diseases. However, it is necessary to carry out more studies that
highlight the eciency of corn byproduct consumption during these diseases.
Keywords: maize, nutraceutics, antioxidants, chronic diseases, functional foods
1. Introduction
Corn is by far the cereal most commonly consumed by the people and cultures of the American
continent: ancient civilizations, such as the Olmec and the Teotihuacan in Mesoamerica
and the Quechuas in the Andean region of South America, developed around this plant [1].
© 2018 The Author(s). Licensee IntechOpen. This chapter is distributed under the terms of the Creative
Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0), which permits unrestricted use,
distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Pre-Columbian natives deied this plant due to its relevance in their lives; the sacred book of
the Quiche, the Popol Vuh, even tries to explain the origin of man by narrating how corn was
given to mankind by the gods Paxil and Cayalan [2].
Corn is a monocotyledonous plant cultivated widely around the world and has constituted
itself in one very common staple food. Corn and its wild variant, teosinte, belongs to the
Poaceae family, of the Maydeas tribe; species of the Tripsacum genus are wild variants of corn,
also originating in the American continent, but without any direct trade value. This family
also includes important agricultural crops, such as wheat, rice, sorghum, barley, and sugar
cane. Based on the characteristics of the ear or male inorescence, the Zea genus divides into
two sections, luxurians and annuals [3].
In Latin America, corn is a staple food product, and so it is the crop of greatest production,
and it is also used as a dietary input for livestock, and for the industrial production of large
numbers of products; that is why, from a nutritional, economic, political, and social point of
view, it is the most important agricultural product. Generally, the diet of a people develops
a collective memory and transcends mere food consumption, expressing socioeconomic rela-
tions and revealing acts deeply rooted in cultural symbolism [4, 5].
Corn as food has been found in archeological ruins and manuscripts such as the Florentine or
the Mendoza Codices, wherein it has been possible to elucidate that corn represented on the
main components of the Mesoamerican diet since the Middle Preclassic (1200–400 BC) [4–6].
Archeological remains also show the use and consumption of other plants important during
that period; however, ancient selers developed a preference for corn and it kept growing in
popularity.
In pre-Hispanic times, the production of ours, pinole, and the ancient equivalent to modern
“popcorn” stood out [7]. Currently, corn is widely consumed in of tortillas, arepas, toasts,
tamales, snacks, corncobs, and in other various forms. When it comes to tortilla, it is now
known that it not ancient as previously thought, but it was already prevalent in Mesoamerican
diet by the time the Spaniards arrived at the continent. Today, the tortilla is considered as
the basis of Mexican people’s diet, directly related to its survival for over 3500 years [8].
The richness of indigenous cuisine based on corn was recorded in the reliable testimonies
of conquistadors and chroniclers alike, from Hernán Cortés and Bernal Díaz del Castillo to
Bernardino de Sahagún, all of them providing evidence of the high cultural development
of ancient Mexicans, as well as of the rich diversity of corn, already noticeable back in those
days. The miscegenation resulting from the Spanish Conquest had in gastronomy one of its
main manifestations, enriching pre-Hispanic diet with elements from Spanish/Arab cuisine,
and the other way around, too. However, the indigenous element dominated in this “food
miscegenation,” as can be seen in the fact that corn remains a fundamental ingredient and one
of the main sources of energy in nowadays Latin American diet. An example of this can be
seen in the fact that the average Mexican today obtains 1022 kilocalories and 26.3 g of protein
from corn daily, which may represent 50% of an adult’s daily intake, based on a diet of 2000
kilocalories with 56 g of protein [9].
Corn - Production and Human Health in Changing Climate30
2. Corn as healthy food
In recent years, cereal consumption has been linked to the reduction of chronic-degenerative
diseases such as cancer, obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular and metabolic problems, and
even symptoms associated with neurodegenerative problems. These health benets have
been aributed to the vast variety and high concentration of nutraceutical molecules present
in cereals. Strictly speaking, these molecules cannot be considered as nutritional elements
in themselves, but as bioactive components that can interact with biological systems from
various cellular mechanisms, allowing optimal maintenance of the body’s physiological func-
tions, thus preventing the occurrence of diseases [10].
The confusion that usually arises when talking about concepts such as “nutrients,” “nutraceu-
ticals,” “functional foods,” and “nutritional supplements” should be noted. Clarifying these
terms becomes relevant if one takes into account that the dierent qualities of the elements
included in these categories can directly impact on their consumption. The term “nutrients”
refers to the elements of a diet that can be absorbed by the body and incorporated into dier-
ent physiological systems, allowing for basic functions to occur. For example, lipids and car-
bohydrates are known as the source of metabolic energy, as constituents of the cell membrane
and as hormonal precursors; in its turn, the integration of proteins into the organism is used as
an element of cellular structural reconstitution and integration into enzymatic systems. Also,
vitamins and minerals allow for osmotic maintenance to occur, participate in nerve and mus-
cle functioning, and can act as enzymatic cofactors. On the other hand, the term nutraceutical
refers to the consumption of substances contained in food, able to promote benecial eects on
health without having direct participation in the basic processes of the dierent systems. The
functional food concept encompasses natural or processed food products that contain biologi-
cally active compounds, which may or may not be nutrients. Together, these molecules must
have the capacity to promote health benets, preventing or aiding in the treatment of chronic
diseases, in nontoxic quantities that can be included in a daily diet [11]. As an example of the
above, the consumption of sh that provide omega fay acids can be mentioned; also, the
consumption of fruits and vegetables rich in minerals, vitamins, and dietary ber, as well as
other foods added with biologically active substances such as antioxidants and probiotics [12].
In recent times, cereals such as corn have been acknowledged as functional foods, as they
are an important source of calories, as well as proteins, peptides, carbohydrates, bers, and
antioxidants with a nutraceutical function. The nutritional contribution of corn to the world
population is undeniable, partly because of the great versatility of its kernels to produce food.
Corn for consumption is mainly processed by three methods: dry milling, wet milling, and
alkaline cooking (nixtamalization), and it is through these processes that the raw material
for the production of dierent products is generated. Corn can be consumed in nixtamalized
products such as tortillas and chips, in prepared beverages such as chicha morada, atole,
tejuino, or pozol, in dishes such as polenta, pozole, or tamales, and all of these are merely
a fraction of the many byproducts derived from this cereal. The exibility with which this
plant can be exploited should be emphasized, since its contribution to health keeping and
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improvement is not limited only to the kernel or its byproducts [13]; other anatomical parts
of the plant such as stigmata, cobs, and leaf sheaths have proven to be an important source of
nutraceutical molecules, as will be seen later in this chapter.
Corn kernels consist mainly of ber, ranging from 61 to 86%, depending on the variety of the plant.
Approximately 99% of the ber is found in the endosperm and consists of starch (approximately
73% of the total weight), and the rest of resistant starch. The kernel also contains non-starch poly-
saccharides such as cellulose, hemicellulose, and, to a lesser extent, lignin (approximately 10% of
the total weight), located mainly in the brand. Protein follows; depending on the variety of corn,
it can range from 6 to 12%, calculated on the dry basis, while lipids represent around 3–6%. Out
of these, between 81 and 85% is stored in the germ. Other phytochemical elements can also be
found in pigmented and yellow varieties, in the form of secondary metabolites, phenolic com-
pounds, and carotenoids for the most part. A very wide range of phenolic content exists among
corn varieties, which has been assessed by the quantication of total polyphenols under the
Folin–Ciocalteu reagent method, reporting amounts of 1756 mg of gallic acid equivalent/100 g
of sample for a variety of purple corn with Andean genotype [14] and 266 mg gallic acid equiva-
lent/100 g of sample for varieties of purple corn with Mexican genotype [15]. When it comes
to Mexican white corn, amounts of 260 mg of gallic acid equivalent/100 g of sample have been
reported; likewise, it is likely that corn types with a high prole of carotenoids contain a higher
concentration of phenolic compounds, reporting 320 mg of gallic acid equivalent/100 g of sample
[15]. It should be noted that yellow corn varieties have reported the highest carotenoid content,
with an average dry base concentration of 13 μg of β-carotene equivalent/100 g of sample [16],
although red varieties also synthesize carotenoids.
These elements act as nutraceuticals depending on their bioavailability, molecular structure,
physicochemical characteristics, and their physiological eects, as well as on the properties
acquired or lost after the dierent food byproducts have been processed.
3. Nutraceutical properties of corn
The kernel of corn contains proteins that have been classied into four groups in relation to
their solubility. The most water-soluble proteins fall into the category of albumins, while pro-
teins soluble in saline solutions are known as globulins. Proteins soluble in alcoholic solutions
make up the group of prolamins or zeins, and proteins unable to be solubilized in any of the
previous solutions form the group of glutelins. In view of this, the disposition and location
of these proteins have a dierential characteristic. For example, albumins and globulins are
located mainly in the germ, while prolamins and glutelins can be found predominantly in the
endosperm. In relation to their concentration, proteins are distributed unevenly in the corn
kernel; 40% of the proteins are concentrated in zeins, followed by the glutelins, with 30%, and
globulins and albumins together representing less than 5%. Of these, approximately 60% of
the proteins are concentrated in the endosperm and are prolamins, with α-zein being the most
abundant in corn, reaching up to 75% of the total prolamins [17]. Due to the water insolubility
of corn proteins, its potential health benets are limited; however, late technological advances
have allowed to obtain peptides by hydrolysis in order to improve their bioavailability [18].
Corn - Production and Human Health in Changing Climate32
Once ingested, corn proteins are hydrolyzed by the activity of gastrointestinal enzymes such
as pepsin, trypsin, and chymotrypsin. In vitro, this process can be carried out by the addition
of enzymes, or by acidication or fermentation. Nonetheless, in vitro hydrolysis processes
have shown some drawbacks, for example, when using acids, controlling the process can
be complicated and some amino acids can be lost; also, protein hydrolysis turns out to be
inecient under the process of fermentation. As of late, enzymatic digestion has been chosen
for in vitro isolation of bioactive peptides, which has proven to be a more ecient process.
From two-amino acid peptides to 30-amino acid polypeptides can be isolated by means of
these processes. Hydrophobic amino acids can be counted among peptides with bioactive
capacity, structured with a positive charge and a proline in their C-terminal end [19]. On the
other hand, dipeptides and tripeptides have greater resistance to the degradation of stomach,
pancreatic, and intestinal proteases and peptidases, and larger peptides (six amino acids and
larger) have a higher biological activity outside the intestine [20].
Studies have shown that bioactive peptides can have benecial eects on health, mainly as anti-
hypertensive, anticholesterolemic, antioxidant, anti-inammatory, anticarcinogenic, antimicro-
bial, and others, due to their immunomodulatory properties. Likewise, it has been reported that
they can help decrease the eects associated with high alcohol consumption. A large number of
bioactive peptides have been obtained by means of the hydrolysis of zeins proteins, for example,
the tripeptide lysine-proline-proline, and from the γ-zein protein, the valine-histidine-leucine-
proline-proline-proline polypeptide, whereas the tripeptide proline-arginine-proline, which
has also shown a biological functional activity, has been isolated from the α-zeins protein, as
well as MBP-1 peptides from the corn kernel. Successful eorts have been made to isolate other
peptides from corn gluten meal, such as Cys-Ser-Gln-Ala-Pro-Leu-Ala or Tyr-Pro-Lys-Leu-Ala-
Pro-Asn-Glu. Overall, it has been observed that a large number of peptides can be isolated from
the dierent components of corn, although their possible biological activity is still undergoing
further research, as it is still necessary to carry out studies that help nd the mechanisms from
which these peptides can exert their biological activity.
As for the total ber contained in corn, resistant starch is a type of non-digestible ber, as it
is highly resistant to the activity of digestive enzymes. The presence of resistant starch seems
to be directly related to the percentage of amylose content. In normal corn, the presence of
34% of amylose is related to 0.8% of resistant starch, while high-amylose corn starch, the
recorded presence of 83% amylose results in 39% resistant starch [21, 22]. However, resistant
starch can be metabolized by the microbiota of the large intestine through fermentation and
this in turn results in small chains of fay acids [23]. Both the starch and the resistant starch
contained in corn kernels have grown in relevance due to their possible function as regulators
of body weight, thus a possible natural alternative for the treatment of obesity. On the other
hand, these elements have also been linked to liver protection and the prevention of type 2
diabetes [24, 25].
In turn, phenolic compounds are a group of molecules whose chemical structure is made up of
several hydroxyl groups linked to an aromatic group. When two or more rings are conjugated,
a polyphenolic structure is generated; depending on the number of aromatic rings and the
structural elements that bind them together, thousands of polyphenols have been identied.
The polyphenols synthesized in corn can be classied into three groups according to their
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concentration and their contribution to human health; this way, we can speak of non-antho-
cyanin avonoids, phenolic acids, and anthocyanin avonoids. The group of non-anthocyanin
avonoids includes avonols (rutin, isoquercetin, avonol, morin, kaempferol, and quercetin)
and avonones (naringenin and hesperetin) [26], while the phenolic acids found in corn are pro-
tocatechuic acid, vanillic acid, syringic acid, trihydroxybenzoic acid, caeic acid, chlorogenic
acid, and p-hydroxyphenylacetic acid. Ferulic acid and p-coumaric acid are the compounds
with more concentrates in corn, particularly in pigmented varieties [27, 28]. Total ferulic acid
content detected in kernels of white varieties with Mexican genotype has been reported as
124,053 mg of ferulic acid equivalent/100 g of sample, while pigmented varieties such as blue or
red corn have reported 129,985 and 130,297 mg of ferulic acid/100 g sample, respectively [15].
The food industry has exploited the varieties of yellow and white corn for a long time now;
however, the use of pigmented varieties has gained more and more strength in the food sector
recently, not only as a possible source of natural edible pigments but also for its properties
as a functional food. Among the most common colors, red, blue, and black can be found.
This pigmentation is conferred by anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are a group of natural pig-
ments soluble in water, widely distributed in the dierent tissues of the plant. Anthocyanins
are responsible for conferring shades ranging from red to blue and purple. Functionally,
anthocyanins protect the plant from damage by radiation, partake in the defense against
pathogens and/or predators, and in reproductive functions as pollinator aractants; likewise,
they regulate the synthesis of growth factors such as auxin. In corn kernels, anthocyanins
are stored mainly in the aleurone layer; it is also possible to nd these molecules in the peri-
carp, or in both structures. Even native non-pigmented varieties, pure lines, and hybrids have
some pigmented tissue in the roots of the seedling or anthers [29–31]. In pigmented corn, the
content of anthocyanins can be evaluated as low, medium, and high, with values that range
between 5.9 and 3045 mg of cyanidin-3-glucocide equivalent/100 g of sample, while values
reported in white or yellow corn varieties range from 0.9 to 1.2 mg of cyanidin-3-glucocide
equivalent/100 g [32, 33]. It is also possible to nd anthocyanins in other tissues such as cobs
and leaf sheaths, but the concentration in these structures is not precisely dened. Some stud-
ies have been found concentrations ranging from 430 to 11,700 mg of cyanidin-3-glucocide
equivalent/100 g of sample for the cob [33], whereas for the leaf sheaths, it has been possible
to extract up to 17,7900 mg of cyanidin-3-glucide equivalent/100 g of sample [34]. It should
be noted that cyanidin and its derivates are more abundant in pigmented corn varieties [35].
Carotenoids are natural pigments in corn and other plants, responsible for conferring col-
orations ranging from yellow to orange. Carotenoids participate in functions such as pho-
tosynthesis due to their ability to absorb light from dierent spectra and transfer energy to
chlorophyll. The carotenoids have a skeleton made up of 40 carbons of isopropene units. These
structures can be cycled in one or both terminations, having several levels of hydrogenation
or can have oxygenated functional groups and, according to this, can be classied into caro-
tenes, which are tetrapenoid hydrocarbons, consisting solely of carbon and hydrogen atoms,
and xanthophylls or oxo-carotenoids, structures that contain at least one oxygen. Yellow corns
contain lutein, zeaxanthin, β-cryptoxanthin, and β-carotenes [36, 37]. Carotenoid concentra-
tion can vary widely depending on genotypes and external characteristics. For example, the
blue variety of the Mexican genotype has concentrations of 0.18 μg of β-carotene equivalent/g
of sample [38], while the yellow variety of the Canadian genotype has concentrations of up
Corn - Production and Human Health in Changing Climate34
to 60 μg of xanthophylls equivalent/g of sample [39]. Carotenoids are found mainly in the
germ, followed by the aleurone and the endosperm. Generally, by decreasing lipoperoxida-
tion, carotenoids can act as antioxidant agents in lipid environments.
Tissues such as stigmata, cobs, stems, and leaf sheaths of corn can be an important source of
anthocyanins, ferulic acid, and some other substances that may help improve health; even
when those are not products t for human consumption, they could be processed to obtain
extracts with a potential nutraceutical use. As of today, there is scientic evidence of the use
of stigmata for the treatment of conditions such as kidney disorders, hypertension, and some
neurodegenerative diseases. Some of the bioactive compounds that can be isolated from these
tissues are terpenoids, steroids, saccharides, cerebrosides, avonoids such as avonones and
anthocyanins, and lignan [40, 41].
3.1. Antioxidant properties of corn
Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are a group of molecules derived from oxygen that are charac-
terized by their high reactivity and a short life span. The reactivity of these molecules is due to
the presence of two unpaired electrons in the outermost electron layer. Among the molecules
included in the ROS group are the superoxide free radical (O2
), the hydroxyl radical (OH),
and the hydrogen peroxide (H2O2). ROS can be generated by endogenous, extracellular, and
intracellular mechanisms. The main source of ROS is the mitochondria during the cellular
respiration process, followed by cellular metabolism processes, whereas exogenous produc-
tion of ROS arises from smoking, ultraviolet radiation, ionizing radiation, drug consumption,
and the presence of toxins. The damage generated by ROS is due to their reductive property,
and if not properly regulated, they can alter cell integrity due to the peroxidation of lipids and
proteins of the cell membrane, being able to even damage the structure of DNA.
Oxidative stress is generated by excess ROS, linked to cell damage associated with chronic-
degenerative diseases such as cancer, chronic inammation, cardiovascular diseases, neurode-
generative problems, and metabolic dysfunction. The process of cellular oxidation is regulated
by antioxidant mechanisms, which delay or prevent the formation of ROS. Antioxidant pro-
tection is achieved through the correct balance between pro-oxidants and endogenous and/
or exogenous antioxidants. Cells have an endogenous system of enzymes such as superoxide
dismutase (SOD), catalases (CAT), glutathione peroxidase (GPx), quinone reductase (QR),
and glutathione reductase (GR), which function as ROS stabilizers [42]. Compounds with
antioxidant activity can be introduced in the body through diet, and corn is one important
source of such compounds.
Fruits, vegetables, and seeds in general contain a great diversity of antioxidants that can
act for the benet of health more eciently than some synthetic antioxidants. Recent stud-
ies have shown that the consumption of cereals can provide a greater antioxidant activity
[2600–3500 μmol of Trolox equivalent (TE)/100 g] compared to some fruits (1200 μmol of
TE/100 g) or vegetables (450 μmol of TE/100 g). Carotenoids, bioactive peptides, and a-
vonoids such as corn anthocyanins can act as antioxidant agents by lowering ROS levels,
or by activating endogenous antioxidant systems that reduce cell damage. The antioxidant
activity of nutraceuticals in corn is dierent; for example, when assessing the antioxidant
activity of the carotenoids of Croatian genotype corn through the ABTS technique, values of
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0.767 μmol of TE/g of sample were reported [34], whereas the total extracts of Italian geno-
type corn have reported antioxidant activity of 29 μmol of TE/g of sample [43]. These data
suggest that carotenoids only contribute approximately 5% of the total antioxidant activity,
while the phenolic fraction has the highest antioxidant activity. It should be noted that the
antioxidant activity of carotenoids depends on their concentration, their distribution in the
kernel, and the type of carotenoid, as studies have found activity values of 71 μmol of TE/g
of sample in extracts of aleurone and 66.2 μmol of TE/g of sample in the endosperm. Other
studies measured the antioxidant activity of the carotenoids contained in corn tortillas with
the β-carotene/linoleate bleaching method, showing that the nixtamalization process can
improve the antioxidant activity of carotenoids. In tortillas made of Mexican genotype corn
of red or blue varieties, a decrease in whitening of approximately 27% has been reported,
while in unprocessed kernels, the value reported was 15%. A value of 25% has been reported
for white corn tortillas and 12% for raw kernels [38].
When comparing the antioxidant activity of phenolic compounds of pigmented corn and
the polyphenols of blue berries, it was shown that corn has a greater antioxidant capacity
and greater reaction kinetics [14]. When evaluating the antioxidant capacity in phenolic com-
pounds of the blue, red, white, yellow, and high carotenoid corn varieties by the peroxyl radi-
cal scavenging capacity assay (PSC), an activity of 41–49 μmol of vitamin C equivalent/100 g
of sample was reported [15]. This fact has proven that the higher the phenolic content, the
greater the antioxidant activity, not only in kernels, but this quality is also maintained in
byproducts elaborated by the nixtamalization process, such as the tortilla. However, unlike
carotenoids, corn phenolic compounds are aected by production processes such as nixta-
malization, which causes a decrease in their nutraceutical properties. For example, in Mexican
phenotype corn kernels of the blue variety, a concentration of 343 mg of gallic acid equiva-
lent/100 g of sample has been reported, while in products such as tortillas made with this
same kernel, 201 mg of gallic acid equivalent/100 g of sample has been found. Antioxidant
capacity can be expressed as the inhibition of ABTS cation formation; this way, it was deter-
mined that the antioxidant activity of the kernel is approximately 63%, while for the tortilla,
it was 44%. The antioxidant activity of corn is not only limited to inhibiting the formation of
ROS, it can also regulate cellular enzymatic elements for the defense against oxidative stress.
It has been shown that corn components can increase the activity of the QR enzyme [44].
Only some of the phenolic compounds contained in corn have biological activity; for example,
phenolic acids have only been able to recognize the nutraceutical capacity of compounds such
as ferulic acid, protocatechuic acid, and p-coumaric acid [45].
Researchers from the University of Florida quantied and characterized the content of pheno-
lic compounds in commercial genotype corn kernels of white varieties and of two blue variet-
ies, one of Mexican genotype and the other North American, and reported a higher content
of phenols in white corn, mainly ferulic acid, protocatechuic acid, and p-coumaric acid, while
in blue corn, there were no traces of these acids. However, they found high concentrations of
anthocyanins in the Mexican genotype, followed by the North American genotype. In addi-
tion, the antioxidant capacity of the three varieties was evaluated, demonstrating that the
Mexican genotype has a greater capacity to inhibit the formation of ROS [46]. In this sense
and due to their structural composition, the compounds contained in corn with a greater
Corn - Production and Human Health in Changing Climate36
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proliferation and adipogenesis, as well as induce lipolysis and apoptosis [50]. Another bioac-
tive compound present in corn is maysin; the use of maysin in some studies has shown that it is
a potent benecial functional ingredient for health and a therapeutic agent in the prevention or
treatment of obesity [51]. Menopause is a stage in which the production of estrogen is reduced,
promoting the increase of body fat, and is a risk factor that contributes to obesity in older
women. On the other hand, it is known that the modication of the gastrointestinal micro-
biota can reduce obesity by controlling energy expenditure. Therefore, adding prebiotics to the
diet can contribute to the modication of the intestinal microbial ora, thus reducing obesity.
Accordingly, the high-amylose type 2 resistant starch of corn can be used as a prebiotic, as
has been proven in studies performed in ovariectomized rats. These studies showed that the
bacterial levels increased with the addition of resistant starch of high corn amylose to the diet
of the animals. In addition, the weight gain caused by the lack of estrogen was aenuated [52].
The consumption of fermentable corn ber is recommended for postmenopausal women.
Diabetes is one of the most severe chronic metabolic diseases with great impact on the
health of the population; the complications that this pathology entails are serious, fatal, and
disabling, in such a way that it signicantly aects the socioeconomic level of a country.
According to the International Diabetes Federation, worldwide, 425 million people have
been reported with diabetes during the year 2017, and the failure to intervene in time is
expected to increase this gure to 693 million by 2045, while in Latin America, the number
of people with diabetes could reach between 25 and 40 million by the year 2030 [53]. It has
been demonstrated that a diet with purple corn rich in anthocyanins can be useful in the
prevention of obesity and diabetes in mice, since the alterations induced by a high-fat diet
(hyperglycemia, hyperinsulinemia, and hyperleptinemia) were normalized in the group that
consumed purple corn in addition to its conventional diet [48]. It was also observed that the
diet added with purple corn can suppress the transcription of genes involved in the synthesis
of fay acids and triglycerides. Other studies have shown that the consumption of resistant
starch contained in corn improves insulin sensitivity in humans [52], and several studies in
animals have documented a reduction of glucose concentration and a change of blood lipid
prole due to the consumption of resistant starch [54]. It has also been observed that antho-
cyanin consumption (1 g/day) in non-hypertensive diabetic patients is eective in reducing
triglyceride levels, increasing HDL cholesterol and optimizing glucose control; ferulic acid
seems to be responsible for these antidiabetic properties.
Diabetic nephropathy is one of the main complications in diabetes and is mainly caused
by chronic renal failure, which is growing in prevalence. This disease is characterized by a
microvascular injury that causes glomerular hyperltration, renal damage, and an increase in
urinary albumin excretion, nally inducing a glomerular dysfunction with renal failure. The
consumption of feruloylated oligosaccharides, derived from the esterication of ferulic acid
or oligosaccharides, impacts common physiological functions and has been shown to be eec-
tive in the regulation of serum insulin levels, and, although not as eective as ferulic acid, this
esteried compound can slow down weight loss in diabetic rats [45]. In addition, purple corn
extract rich in anthocyanins has been used as a therapeutic agent focused on the regulation
of the abnormal angiogenesis that occurs in diabetic nephropathy, which can lead to renal
failure. This is mediated by the decrease in receptor 2 activity for vascular endothelial growth
Corn - Production and Human Health in Changing Climate38
factor after consumption of purple corn, tested in diabetic mice [55]. It has also been reported
that purple corn extract can have antidiabetic eects through the protection of the β cells of
the pancreas, favoring the secretion of insulin and the activation of the AMPK pathway in
diabetic mice. The extract also causes increased phosphorylation by AmpC-activated kinase
protein (AmpK), decreases the activity of phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase (PEPCK),
decreases the transcriptional activity of genes for glucose 6-phosphatase in the liver, and
increases the expression of the glucose transporter 4 (GLUT4) in skeletal muscle [56].
Another complication of diabetes is the formation of cataracts in the eye, caused by an
optical dysfunction in the lens. Researchers from the KhonKaen University in Thailand
conducted a study with rat enucleated lenses, which were incubated in articial water
humor containing 55 mM glucose with various concentrations of Zea mays L. (purple waxy
corn), and found that the extract is capable of protecting against diabetic cataract in a dose-
dependent way, probably due to the reduction of oxidative stress, while with high doses
of corn extract, an eect is exerted through the inhibition of aldose reductase, which limits
the speed in the polyol pathway (sorbitol). However, it is necessary to conduct studies
with in vivo models that support these ndings [57]. Raw extracts of avonoids contained
in corn stigmata have been used in models of diabetic mice reporting a decrease in body
weight, glycemia, and antidiabetic capacity, in addition to the reduction in the levels of
total cholesterol, of triglycerides, of low-density lipoproteins and an increase in the levels
of high-density lipoproteins, suggesting an anti-hyperlipidemic eect [58]. Therefore, corn
is proposed as a nutraceutical food, with a potential therapeutic eect to improve the alter-
ations associated with diabetes. The diversity of corn byproducts, such as tortillas, pozol
(thick, cocoa- and corn-based drink of Mesoamerican origin that is consumed in southern
Mexico), chicha (unfermented drink made with purple corn, avored with pineapple peels,
consumed in Peru), etc., contains a large amount of antioxidant hydrophilic phenolic com-
pounds that are benecial for the control and maintenance of intermediate metabolism, so
they can be considered an alternative for the prevention or treatment of diseases associated
with metabolic alterations.
3.3. Corn and cancer
Cancer is among the leading causes of death in the world, resulting from the interaction
between genetic factors and external physical factors, such as ultraviolet and ionizing radia-
tion, chemical carcinogens such as asbestos and tobacco smoke, and biological carcinogens
(some viral, bacterial, or parasitic infections). The consumption of pigmented corn, like
purple, red, and blue varieties, has been shown to have anti-mutagenic properties due to
anthocyanin content. Since 2001, research has been carried out to demonstrate the antineo-
plastic eects of corn anthocyanins, nding that it prevents carcinogenesis due to exposure
to 2-amino-1-methyl-6-phenylimidazo pyridine (a free radical belonging to the nitrosamines
group) [59]. Purple corn, in addition, has been shown to have chemopreventive properties in
in vitro models of prostate cancer and in transgenic rats [60]. Also, maysin, one of the most
abundant avones in stigmata, can inhibit the growth of PC-3 cancer cells by stimulating
apoptotic cell death dependent on the mitochondria [61]. These results suggest that maysin is
a strong nutraceutical that can be used for the treatment of prostate cancer in humans who are
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39
resistant to chemotherapy, and more recently the non-amylaceous peptide polysaccharide of
corn was isolated and characterized, and after a series of tests, it showed anticancer properties
by blocking metastasis mediated by galectin-3 [62].
In 2015, Mexican researchers conducted a study with extracts of phenolic acids and blue corn
anthocyanins, measuring their anticancer properties in breast, liver, colon, and prostate can-
cer cell lines; results indicated an antiproliferative eect in all cell lines, in which malonyl
glucoside cyanidin was the anthocyanin with the greatest reduction in cell viability [28]. It
has also been shown that the bioactive peptides of corn exert antitumor activity through key
mechanisms such as (a) the induction of apoptosis mediated through specic proteases or cas-
pases; strategies to overcome tumor resistance to apoptotic pathways include the activation
of pro-apoptotic receptors, the restoration of p53 activity, the modulation of caspases, and the
inhibition of the proteasome; (b) blocking the intermediate generation of tumors by regulating
cellular mechanisms associated with cell proliferation and survival, or biosynthetic pathways
that control cell growth; and (c) regulation of immune system functions, increasing the expres-
sion of antigens associated with the tumor (antigenicity) in cancer cells, activating the tumor
cells for them to release warning signals that stimulate the immune response (immunogenic-
ity), or increasing the predisposition of the tumor cells to be recognized and neutralized by the
immune system (susceptibility) by means of autophagy and apoptosis [63]. The possible thera-
peutic use of corn peptide is still limited, since the bioavailability of these molecules depends
on their capacity to remain active and intact elements during the digestive process, and the
probability of reaching the general circulation to exert their physiological eects. Even so,
some evidence supports the use of corn peptides as nutraceutical molecules with therapeutic
capacity against a wide range of diseases related to oxidative damage, including cancer. The
peptides contained in corn represent an important alternative due to their anticancer potential,
but it is necessary to carry out more studies in patients, thus ensuring their therapeutic ecacy.
3.4. Corn and the nervous system
In addition to the nutritional benets that corn consumption can bring, recent eorts have
been made to evaluate its possible health benets, especially on the nervous system. It is well
recognized that a poor diet can contribute to the etiology of chronic diseases such as heart
disease, cancer, and others. In view of this, aging should be considered as the main risk factor
for chronic and/or chronic-degenerative diseases, among which are disabling disorders asso-
ciated with cognitive and memory impairment, and dementia, all of them having a lasting
impact on family life, as well as high costs for public health institutions [64]. In this sense, the
consumption of bioactive nutrients contained in a diet rich in vitamins and polyphenols, and
low in saturated fat content, can be a viable alternative for the preservation and/or delay of
damage to the brain, since these elements can modify and preserve the state of health of the
nervous system through the modulation of biochemical and biological processes [65].
A proper diet includes fruits, vegetables, grains, cereals, and other plants that can have bene-
cial eects on health, preventing the development of various diseases, thanks to the presence
of bioactive components such as avonols, avones, catechins, avonones, anthocyanidins,
procyanidin B, among others [65]. Therefore, recently, special importance has been granted
to the consumption of foods rich in these substances, among which purple corn (Z. mays L.)
Corn - Production and Human Health in Changing Climate40
stands out, being an important source of anthocyanins, which is the natural pigment distrib-
uted widely in the plant that confers its characteristic color, also containing other polyphenols
(non-anthocyanin avonoids and phenolic acids) distributed through the plant, for example,
in the ear and seeds, cyanidin-3-glucoside, pelargonidin-3-glucoside, peonidin-3-glucoside,
and its malonated counterparts can be found. Many biological activities have been aributed
to these anthocyanins, so it is considered that corn and its byproducts that contain them have
an intrinsic capacity to prevent cognitive deterioration and memory decline [66, 67].
3.4.1. Corn and Alzheimer’s
Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a highly prevalent neurodegenerative disease, aecting approxi-
mately 10% of the population over 65 years of age, and it has been estimated that by the year
2050, only in the United States of North America, this disease will aect about 14 million peo-
ple, with an expected incidence close to one million people per year [68], and it has been esti-
mated that the global prevalence of AD will increase to 1 per 85 people in 2050 [69]. AD is the
most common cause of dementia, conceived as a syndrome—a group of symptoms—that have
been aributed to numerous causes, although the most characteristics are decits in memory,
language, and problem-solving capacity, together with other cognitive disorders that aect
the performance of those who suer from it and their ability to carry out daily activities [70].
The pathophysiology of AD is characterized by the formation of extracellular deposits of
beta-amyloid peptide and the hyperphosphorylation of skeletons of intracellular tau proteins.
Extensive research has been carried out with the aim of identifying the etiology of AD, although
the specic mechanisms that cause neurodegenerative damage have not been well established
yet. However, this disease is aributed to multiple factors, including the hypothesis of damage
caused by oxidative stress on DNA, RNA, lipid peroxidation, and protein oxidation, responsible
for the cognitive deterioration characteristic of the disease [71]. Studies carried out in patients
diagnosed with AD have shown a decrease in antioxidant concentration in plasma, as well
as an increase in the concentration of metabolites associated with the oxidation of lipids and
proteins (distinctive markers of oxidative stress). It should be noted that this oxidative damage
in the brain is implied in the toxicity induced by the β-amyloid brillar peptide (Aβ) [72].
Therefore, in recent years, the eorts of a large number of researchers in the world have
focused on the search for natural alternatives that contribute to the prevention of neurodegen-
erative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Among the bioactive components with important bio-
logical activity, it has been reported that polyphenols (natural compounds present in fruits and
vegetables) have the capacity to act as neuroprotective elements, although the ways in which
they can perform this activity are still being studied. A series of studies are being carried out
aimed at extracting molecules such as polyphenols for their potential use for preventive and/or
therapeutic purposes, from dierent sources of fruits and vegetables, among which pigmented
corn of the yellow, purple, brown, green, and blue varieties stand out [35]. Polyphenols exert
biological action in the prevention of AD, due to their intrinsic capacity as reducing agents, and
indirectly promote protection by activating endogenous defense systems, and by modulat-
ing cell-signaling processes related to the activation of the nuclear factor kappa B (NF-κB), of
the protein-1 (AP-1)DNA binding activator, of the synthesis of glutathione, of the phospha-
tidylinositide-3 (PI3)-protein kinase B (Akt)pathway, of mitogen activated by protein kinase
The Maize Contribution in the Human Health
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41
(MAPK)(regulation of extracellular signaling protein kinase (ERK), of c-Jun N-terminal kinase
(JNK) and P38), and also related to the translocation of erythroid nuclear factor 2 (Nrf2) [73].
Corn polyphenols, particularly avonoids, can also modulate the neuronal signaling cascade
activated by aging, acting on the ERK/CREB pathway involved in synaptic plasticity and long-
term potentiation, improving learning and memory capacity in humans and animals [73].
They have also shown modulatory eects on the signaling pathway of kinases such as calcium
calmodulin kinase II (CaMKII) and ERK, which control the activation of CREB (cAMP response
element-binding) and increase the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and
nerve growth factor (NGF) at brain level [64]. As a maer of fact, it has been experimentally
proven that polyphenols exert a protective eect on the hippocampus, preserving and promot-
ing learning strategies and visuospatial memory in middle-aged rodents through the restora-
tion of the mRNA levels of CaMKII, and the increase in the expression of hippocampal NGF
[67]. Due to the above, the consumption of foods rich in molecules with biological potential,
such as those present in corn, represents a nutritional alternative that can also help prevent the
cognitive deterioration and dementia associated with age. However, it is still necessary to carry
out studies that help prove their biological eectiveness in in vivo systems, and especially in
the human population vulnerable to the development of neurodegenerative diseases.
4. Conclusions
Corn is a cereal with excellent nutritional qualities due to its resistant ber, carotenoids, and
polyphenols content. Moreover, the possibility of obtaining peptides with a great biological
activity also contributes to nutraceutical qualities to corn. Regarding this, pigmented corn also
contains anthocyanins, natural pigments that, in addition to their antioxidant properties, can
modulate intracellular signals in dierent tissues of the organism. All the above makes corn
a functional food to prevent the incidence of diseases such as cancer, diabetes, obesity, and
neurodegenerative disorders. Likewise, a diet that includes corn can be implemented during
the treatment of these diseases. However, it remains necessary to carry out more studies that
highlight the eciency of corn byproduct consumption during the incidence of such diseases.
Conict of interest
The authors declare that there is no conict of interest.
Author details
Bañuelos-Pineda Jacinto, Gómez-Rodiles Carmen Cecilia*, Cuéllar-José Ricardo and
Aguirre López Luis Octavio
*Address all correspondence to: carmen.grodiles@academicos.udg.mx
Universidad de Guadalajara, Guadalajara, Mexico
Corn - Production and Human Health in Changing Climate42
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