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Americans eat a lot of corn, even if they don’t munch down on corn on the cob all that frequently outside of some seasonal holidays. Corn is everywhere since it is used not only as a staple food at our kitchen tables but also for animal feed and even for fuel. Corn-derived fuel, corn syrup, and cornstarch are all major ingredients or components that can be found in way more products than you might think.
What’s even more impressive is the fact that corn-based products all come from five different core corn varieties. Today, let’s break down the different types of corn so you know which type you eat and which type of corn is used to fill up your car’s gas tank!
Dent corn is by far the most common corn variety available. In fact, if you drive past a big cornfield, it’s probably full of dent corn.
Also called the yellow dent corn, field corn, and plenty of other names, this corn variety has high soft starch content. It’s called dent corn since each corn kernel has a small indentation at its crown.
Today, dent corn is used to create cornmeal flour, taco shells, corn chips, tortillas, and much more. Furthermore, manufacturers can extract the starch from dent corn and turn it into plastic, or take the fructose and use it as the core ingredient of high fructose corn syrup: a major sweetener you probably consume in your favorite soft drinks or candy.
Additionally, dent corn is a primary ingredient in livestock feed, which is typically given to poultry, hogs, and cattle. Lastly, dent corn can be used to produce ethanol for fuel in trucks and cars. This is actually very efficient since ethanol producers only need the starch from the dent corn.
The rest of the corn product they harvest, including the fiber, fat, protein, and nutrients, is used in livestock and poultry feed markets. In other words, almost all of a dent corn plant is used in one way or another. A bushel of dent corn made by ethanol manufacturers can make another 17 pounds of animal feed after its starch is harvested!
Dent corn is very easy to grow in bulk, which is one of the reasons why many farmers exclusively or mostly grow dent corn as opposed to other varieties.
When you eat corn, on the other hand, you probably consume sweetcorn. Sweetcorn developed as a natural mutation in field corn and was originally grown by Native American tribes prior to the arrival of European settlers.
Over time, sweetcorn has become one of the most popular corn types around the world, primarily thanks to its high sugar content. This corn has high sugar thanks to a recessive mutation that causes the starch content in the corn kernels to convert into sugar.
Because of this difference, sweetcorn is almost always picked when it is immature, then prepared and eaten like other types of vegetables instead of as a grain product. Sweetcorn also stores much more poorly than other types of corn, so it has to be eaten fresh or otherwise stored using freezers or cans.
Next up is popcorn, which is also common in the US and in certain places in Western Europe. Popcorn was first discovered in Peru thousands of years ago (in fact, there’s evidence that popcorn was eaten as early as 4700 BC).
Also called popping corn, popcorn gets its name since the interior of the corn kernel expands from the outer shell and pops up into a fluffy appearance and texture when it is heated sufficiently. Unlike other types of grains, corn can pop because the kernels have a very dense, starchy interior, plus a moisture-sealed hull.
As pressure builds inside the kernel due to the heat, it causes a small explosion and pops up the starchy interior to replace the exterior shell. Whether you like vegan popcorn or regular popcorn, it’s almost always enjoyed as a snacking food – most of it is consumed in movie theaters as a lightweight, easy to prepare snack that can fill you up after a few bites.
There’s also flint corn, otherwise known as Zeo mays induata, Indian corn, or calico corn. This is the same type of corn as “regular” Indian corn (which is multicolored and often used for decoration), but it is technically classified as a separate variety of maize.
With flint corn, each kernel has a hard exterior layer that protects the softer endosperm beneath. Since it has less soft starch compared to dent corn or sweetcorn, flint corn is distinct due to its lack of a dent at the crown.
Flint corn was one of the three primary types of corn cultivated by Native Americans before European colonization. This type of corn is very nutritious and served as a staple crop for many Mississippian cultures of that earlier era.
Finally, we come to pod corn. Pod corn is the type of corn least understood by the general public. Also called Zeo mays var. tunicate, pod corn is characterized by kernels that enclose or protect elongated “glumes”. Because of this distinct shape and appearance, pod corn may be one of the earliest progenitors or ancestor species of regular maize.
Today, pod corn is mostly found in Central and South America. It can be found in some dishes or grain products in those areas, though it is not nearly as commercially popular as dent corn due to its higher farming requirements, lower nutrition density, and other reasons.
The story of corn is a long one – as indicated above, people were farming and eating corn for thousands of years before the common era or before the arrival of European colonists in America. In just a few hundred years, corn has gone from being a relatively obscure crop only eaten by a few civilizations in North and Central America to one of the most important crops worldwide, not just for the United States.
So the next time you drive by a cornfield, take a moment and consider whether it’s dent corn or another type of corn entirely. And the next time you take a bite of corn, appreciate how far it has spread from its humble beginnings!