purple corn researchers at the University of IllinoisResearchers at the University of Illinois found that elements of purple corn might help fight several diseases. From left, food science professor Elvira Gonzalez de Mejia, postdoctoral researcher Diego Luna-Vital, and crop sciences professor John Juvik.Credit: Photo by L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Purple corn is more than tasty and eye-catching. Scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have discovered a game-changing element of purple corn—it may help reduce the risk of major health diseases.

While developing new types of purple corn, the researchers found some with elevated levels of a naturally occurring chemical that may fight obesity, inflammation, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain types of cancer. They also found that the outer layer of kernels might be used as natural food coloring.

USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture is supporting this research with funds through the Hatch Act. Hatch funds support agricultural research to solve problems that concern more than one state.

The research team, led by food science professor Elvira Gonzalez de Mejia and crop sciences professor John Juvik, created 20 varieties of the Apache Red maize strain, each with a different amount and type of anthocyanins, the element that gives the maize its distinct color. Studies have shown that eating anthocyanin-rich foods may reduce the risk of disease.

In one finding, the scientists tested purple corn’s phenolic compounds against insulin resistance. They induced insulin resistance in the mouse fat cells, treated the cells with the anthocyanin compounds, and monitored the glucose uptake. They found that insulin resistance decreased by 29-64 percent. Although more studies are needed, the research suggests that phenolic compounds might improve the insulin profile of people who are obese.

Juvik also described an extra benefit of purple corn. He noted that the natural color of purple corn could potentially be used as a food color replacement for red dye No. 40—one of the major dyes used in the United States. People could then easily gain some health benefits through a natural, anthocyanin-rich pigment dye that is added to foods and beverages.