Extolling the Virtues of Corn

By Gretchen Morfogen

Is there a more versatile edible? Scientists estimate that the ancestry of corn in the Americas dates back to 10,000 years ago, and that it is closely related to a wild grass called teosinte. It looked very different from our corn today. The kernels were small and were not placed close together like kernels on the husked ear of modern corn. Also known as maizeIndians throughout North and South America, eventually depended upon this crop for much of their food. From Mexico maize spread north into the Southwestern United States and south down the coast to Peru about 1000 years ago, as Indian people migrated north to the eastern woodlands of present day North America.Corn was introduced to Spain by Columbus after he discovered it’s many uses while in the Americas. But up to this time, people living in Europe did not know about corn. The first Thanskgiving was held in 1621. While sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie were not on the menu, Indian corn certainly would have been.

Some more popular varieties of corn are:

Flint corn is very hard and gets its name from flint, a hard type of stone. The colors of flint corn range from white to red. (Flint corn is also known as Indian corn.) Flint corn is commonly used for industrial purposes and livestock feed.

Popcorn is a special type of flint corn with hard, small kernels. The natural moisture inside the kernels turns to steam when heated, but the outer coat of the kernel is so hard that the moisture is trapped. This causes the steam to build up pressure until the kernel explodes.

Dent corn is softer than flint corn. It has a dent in each kernel. Most kernels are yellow or white. It is commonly grown in North America and often used as livestock feed. It is also used to make many processed foods.

Flour corn has a very soft starchy kernel. It is easily ground and is used in baked goods. Flour and Flint corn were the chief types of corn raised by Native Americans. It is one of the oldest kinds of corn.

Sweet corn has more natural sugar than other types of corn.

Pod corn is thought to have been the first type of corn grown. There are many more varieties that have been cultivated in other areas of the Americas depending on use and cultural applications.

Some other tid bits of corn trivia are:

Corn provides nearly 20% of the world’s food calories.Corn is grown in Africa more widely than any other crop.The United States grows 45% of the world’s corn, much of which is processed into animal feed.A bushel of corn yields 2.5 gallons of ethanol: a renewable fuel used instead of lead to raise gasoline octane levels.

More than 2000 supermarket products are sweetened with corn syrup, more than are sweetened with refined sugars.

Corn farming was probably introduced to Africa to supply cheap food for slave ships.

Corn would not exist if it weren’t for the humans that cultivated and developed it. It is a human invention, a plant that does not exist naturally in the wild. It can only survive if planted and protected by humans.

GMO Corn

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, over 80 percent of all corn grown commercially in the United States today is a genetically engineered (GE) variety. Genetic engineering differs from plant breeding in a very important way. Genetic engineering involves taking genes from other sources (not from a similar plant and perhaps not from a plant at all) and inserting them artificially. Plant breeding, on the other hand, involves crossing two similar plants in a natural manner to achieve more desirable traits. There is wide-ranging debate and dissent over genetic engineering and companies that hold patents on GE corn seed. The most common GE corn has been genetically altered to be Roundup resistant. Farmers cannot grow GE corn without paying the patent owner for new seeds annually. In other words, farmers cannot save the seeds from year to year as they always did. It is unknown what the long-term effects of GE foods are on the environment, animals and humans. It is debated whether the GE varieties even increase production as claimed. Genetically engineered corn is approved for human consumption by many governments. Canada and the United States do not require labeling of products containing GE corn or other GE crops. Europe does require labeling of GE foods.

That is an unfortunate reality of our beloved crop. However, that would never stop me from making my corn &leek casserole, corn fritters, corn chowder, or corn on the cob. And so many more fantastic recipes. The versatility of this vegetable far outweighs the controversies. The small farmers who grow corn for its pleasurable edible applications are the ones who deserve the accolades for continuing the tradition of such an amazing crop!

Gretchen Morfogen is a regular culinary writer for The Healthy Planet magazine.