Holli Ryan RD, LD/N
There’s a wide selection of tortilla chips to choose from at the grocery store. Are those blue corn tortilla chips healthier than the yellow or white corn alternative? If you look at the nutrition facts on the label, you’ll notice they are pretty similar. Both tend to have 2 g of protein and 1-2 g of fiber per 1 oz serving. This same serving size has 15–20 g of carbohydrates, and 6–9 g of fat, mostly from the oil used to fry them (baked chips will have less fat). Corn tortilla chips won’t offer many vitamins, but will provide a small of amount of minerals, including iron. Let’s talk about that blue color, though. Yes, it’s a naturally occurring color.
Benefits of Blue Corn: Anthocyanins
Blue corn contains anthocyanins, naturally occurring pigments found in plants that give food its blue, red, and purple hues. Anthocyanins are polyphenol flavonoids that act as antioxidants, along with other potential health benefits. Blue corn has a higher protein content and lower glycemic index compared to yellow corn.
- Anticancer effects:
- Blue corn and tortilla extracts exerted antiproliferative effects (inhibited tumor growth) on several cancer cell lines in vitro.1
- Anthocyanins from blue corn tortillas decreased cell viability and arrested the cell cycle to cause apoptosis (cell death) in prostate and breast cancer cells.2 Notably, this included triple negative cancer cells.
- Cognitive effects:
- A preclinical study showed that rats fed blue corn tortillas experienced improved long- and short-term memory (compared to white corn and control food groups).3
- Antiparasitic effects:
- A preclinical study showed that extracts of blue corn had antiparasitic effects (against the parasite Toxoplasma gondii that can cause toxoplasmosis) in infected macrophages. Infected mice treated with blue corn extract also had improved survival rates compared to untreated controls.4
- Antioxidant effects:
- Blue corn displays antioxidant and antimutagenic effects in in vitro studies.5,6
- Metabolic effects:
- Extracts from several species of corn, including purple corn, showed inhibition of α-glucosidase and α-amylase (potential benefit for hyperglycemia). Only purple corn samples also showed inhibition of lipase (potential benefit for obesity).7
Blue Corn vs Yellow Corn
- There are a few varieties of yellow and white corn, or bicolor corn, including sweet corn and dent corn.
- Sweet corn is the type you buy on the cob for dinner at the grocery store. As the name indicates, it has a higher sugar content.
- Dent corn is a type of field corn that is commonly used in food manufacturing for products like tortilla chips (but not popcorn – that is a separate variety).
- Yellow corn contains a different pigment called carotenoids, which provide lutein and zeaxanthin antioxidants.8
- Blue corn is a type of flint corn; one of the six major types of corn (maize), and it is grown primarily in Mexico and the United States.
- Blue corn approximately 30% more protein than yellow corn.
- Flint corn can also have many colors on the same ear of corn. You may recognize this variety as the ornamental corn used for display on Thanksgiving, but it is also used to make a variety of food products.
- Some varieties of flint corn are actually distinctly more purple than blue, which is common in Peru.
The Bottom Line
Are anthocyanins healthful? Research says yes. Are chips healthful? Not particularly. Chips made with stone ground corn are slightly less processed and may offer a slight edge by providing more fiber. How much anthocyanins make it into the final product is unclear. That being said, if you eat tortilla chips often, it could add up. As a general rule of thumb, the more processed something is, the less healthy it is than the whole-food alternative. Even choosing the tortilla over the chip may be a better option.
Making tortillas at home is simple and call for minimal ingredients that include corn flour and water. If you are making blue corn tortillas, you can purchase blue corn flour online or at specialty or ethnic grocery stores. The verdict: to ensure you get the most anthocyanin content, whole blue, red, and purple foods are a better source, not chips.
- Herrera-Sotero MY, Cruz-Hernandez CD, Trujillo-Carretero C, et al. Antioxidant and antiproliferative activity of blue corn and tortilla from native maize. Chem Cent J. 2017;11(1):110.
- Herrera-Sotero MY, Cruz-Hernandez CD, Oliart-Ros RM, et al. Anthocyanins of Blue Corn and Tortilla Arrest Cell Cycle and Induce Apoptosis on Breast and Prostate Cancer Cells. Nutrition and cancer. 2019:1-10.
- Aguirre Lopez LO, Chavez Servia JL, Gomez Rodiles CC, Beltran Ramirez JR, Banuelos Pineda J. Blue Corn Tortillas: Effects on Learning and Spatial Memory in Rats. Plant foods for human nutrition (Dordrecht, Netherlands). 2017;72(4):448-450.
- Ahmadpour E, Ebrahimzadeh MA, Sharif M, et al. Anti-Toxoplasma Activities of Zea Mays and Eryngium Caucasicum Extracts, In Vitro and In Vivo. J Pharmacopuncture. 2019;22(3):154-159.
- Loarca-Pina G, Neri M, Figueroa JD, et al. Chemical characterization, antioxidant and antimutagenic evaluations of pigmented corn. J Food Sci Technol. 2019;56(7):3177-3184.
- Mutlu C, Arslan-Tontul S, Candal C, Kilic O, Erbas M. Physicochemical, Thermal, and Sensory Properties of Blue Corn (Zea Mays L.). J Food Sci. 2018;83(1):53-59.
- Ranilla LG, Huaman-Alvino C, Flores-Baez O, et al. Evaluation of phenolic antioxidant-linked in vitro bioactivity of Peruvian corn (Zea mays L.) diversity targeting for potential management of hyperglycemia and obesity. J Food Sci Technol. 2019;56(6):2909-2924.
- Abdel-Aal el SM, Akhtar H, Zaheer K, Ali R. Dietary sources of lutein and zeaxanthin carotenoids and their role in eye health. Nutrients. 2013;5(4):1169-1185.