When you think of cooked grains, chances are you think of oatmeal, rice, or quinoa.

Corn is often overlooked, though it can likewise be enjoyed as a cooked grain side dish or cereal when used in the form of cornmeal. 

Polenta is a tasty dish made by cooking ground cornmeal in salted water. When the grains absorb water, they soften and turn into a creamy, porridge-like dish.

You can add herbs, spices, or grated cheese for extra flavor.

Originating in Northern Italy, polenta is inexpensive, easy to prepare, and extremely versatile, so it’s well worth getting to know.

This article reviews the nutrition, health benefits, and uses of polenta.

Polenta nutrition facts

Plain polenta without cheese or cream is fairly low in calories and contains negligible amounts of various vitamins and minerals. Plus, like other grains, it’s a good source of carbs.

A 3/4-cup (125-gram) serving of polenta cooked in water provides (1, 2):

  • Calories: 80
  • Carbs: 17 grams
  • Protein: 2 grams
  • Fat: less than 1 gram
  • Fiber: 1 gram

You can also buy precooked polenta packaged in a tube. As long as the ingredients are only water, cornmeal, and possibly salt, the nutrition information should remain similar.

Most packaged and precooked polenta is made from degerminated corn, meaning the germ — the innermost part of the corn kernel — has been removed. Therefore, it’s not considered a whole grain.

The germ is where most of the fat, B vitamins, and vitamin E are stored. This means that removing the germ also removes most of these nutrients. Thus, the shelf life of packaged polenta or degerminated cornmeal is increased, as there’s less fat to turn rancid (3).

If you prefer, you can also make polenta that’s higher in fiber and vitamins by choosing whole grain cornmeal — simply look for the words “whole corn” on the ingredient label.

Cooking polenta in milk instead of water can add important nutrients but will also increase the calorie count.

Much like rice, polenta is often used as a side dish or base for other foods. It’s low in protein and fat, and it pairs well with meats, seafood, or cheese to make a more complete meal.

summary

Polenta is an Italian porridge-like dish that’s made by cooking cornmeal in water and salt. It’s high in carbs but has a moderate number of calories. To get more fiber and nutrients, make it with whole grain instead of degerminated cornmeal.

Is polenta healthy?

Corn is one of the most important cereal crops in the world. In fact, it’s a staple grain for 200 million people (2, 4). 

On its own, cornmeal doesn’t provide a complete source of nutrients. However, when eaten along with other nutritious foods, it can have a place in a healthy diet.

High in complex carbs

The type of corn that’s used to make cornmeal and polenta is different from the sweet corn on the cob you enjoy in the summer. It’s a starchier type of field corn that’s high in complex carbs.

Complex carbs are digested more slowly than simple carbs. Thus, they help keep you feeling full for longer and provide long-lasting energy.

Amylose and amylopectin are the two forms of carbs in starch (2). 

Amylose — also known as resistant starch because it resists digestion — comprises 25% of the starch in cornmeal. It’s linked to healthier blood sugar and insulin levels. The remainder of the starch is amylopectin, which does get digested (2, 4).

Fairly blood-sugar-friendly

The glycemic index (GI) indicates how much a given food may raise your blood sugar levels on a scale of 1–100. The glycemic load (GL) is a value that factors in the serving size to determine how a food may affect blood sugar levels (5).

While polenta is high in starchy carbs, it has a medium GI of 68, meaning it shouldn’t raise your blood sugar levels too quickly. It also has a low GL, so it shouldn’t cause your blood sugar to spike too high after eating it (6).

That said, it’s important to know that the GI and GL of foods are affected by what else you eat at the same time.

If you have diabetes, the American Diabetes Association recommends focusing on the total carb content in your meal rather than its components’ glycemic measurements (7).

That means you should stick to small portions of polenta, such as 3/4 cup (125 grams), and pair it with foods like vegetables and meats or fish to balance it.

Rich in antioxidants

The yellow cornmeal used to make polenta is an important source of antioxidants, which are compounds that help protect the cells in your body from oxidative damage. In doing so, they may help reduce your risk of certain age-related diseases (8, 9).

The most significant antioxidants in yellow cornmeal are carotenoids and phenolic compounds (9).

The carotenoids include carotenes, lutein, and zeaxanthin, among many others. These natural pigments give cornmeal its yellow color and are linked to a lower risk of eye diseases like age-related macular degeneration, as well as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and dementia (1).

Phenolic compounds in yellow cornmeal include flavonoids and phenolic acids. They’re responsible for some of its sour, bitter, and astringent flavors (9, 10). 

These compounds are thought to reduce the risk of age-related diseases through their antioxidant properties. They also help block or reduce inflammation throughout the body and brain (9, 10).

Gluten-free

Corn, and thus cornmeal, is naturally gluten-free, so polenta can be a good grain choice if you follow a gluten-free diet

Still, it’s always a good idea to examine the ingredient label carefully. Some manufacturers may add gluten-containing ingredients, or the product may be manufactured in a facility that also processes gluten-containing foods, increasing the risk of cross-contamination.

Many brands of polenta state that their products are gluten-free on the label.

summary

Polenta is a healthy gluten-free grain and good source of antioxidants that help protect your eyes and reduce your risk of certain chronic diseases. It shouldn’t negatively affect your blood sugar levels as long as you stick to a reasonable portion size.

How to make polenta

Polenta is easy to prepare. 

One cup (125 grams) of dry cornmeal plus 4 cups (950 mL) of water will make 4–5 cups (950–1188 mL) of polenta. In other words, polenta requires a four-to-one ratio of water to cornmeal. You can adjust these measurements depending on your needs. 

This recipe will make a creamy polenta:

  • Bring 4 cups (950 mL) of lightly salted water or stock to a boil in a pot.
  • Add 1 cup (125 grams) of packaged polenta or yellow cornmeal.
  • Stir it well and reduce the heat to low, allowing the polenta to simmer and thicken.
  • Cover the pot and let the polenta cook for 30–40 minutes, stirring every 5–10 minutes to keep it from sticking to the bottom and burning.
  • If you’re using instant or quick-cooking polenta, it will take only 3–5 minutes to cook.
  • If desired, season the polenta with additional salt, olive oil, grated Parmesan cheese, or fresh or dried herbs.

If you want to experiment with baked polenta, pour the cooked polenta into a baking pan or dish and bake it at 350°F (177°C) for about 20 minutes, or until firm and slightly golden. Let it cool and cut it into squares for serving.

Store dried cornmeal in an airtight container in a cool, dry place, and keep in mind the best-by-date. Generally, degerminated polenta has a long shelf life and should last about 1 year. 

Whole grain cornmeal should typically be used within about 3 months. Alternatively, store it in your refrigerator or freezer to extend the shelf life.

Once prepared, polenta should be kept in your refrigerator and enjoyed within 3–5 days.

summary

Polenta is easy to cook and requires only water and salt. Instant or quick-cooking takes just minutes, while regular polenta takes 30–40 minutes. Make sure to store dry cornmeal properly and use it according to the best-by dates on the package.

The bottom line

Originating from Northern Italy, polenta is easy to prepare and works well as a side dish paired with a protein source or vegetables of your choice.

It’s high in complex carbs that help you feel full for longer, yet it’s not too high in calories. It’s also naturally gluten-free, making it a good choice for anyone who follows a gluten-free diet.

Furthermore, polenta boasts some potential health benefits. It’s full of carotenoids and other antioxidants that help protect your eyes and may reduce your risk of certain illnesses.

To get the most nutrients from polenta, prepare it with whole grain cornmeal rather than degerminated cornmeal.