Some weeks ago, I asked my 3 year old son to name his favorite vegetable. He paused for a second, then replied with the unsurprising answer, “Corn.” As he answered, in my head I thought, “How do I explain to a toddler that corn is actually a grain, not a vegetable?” It’s a good thing I kept that thought in my head, because as it turns out, Corn is probably not who you think it is. Corn actually goes by several food groups, of course most popular as a vegetable. Yet the fact that corn rose to such popularity as to become the official state grain of Illinois in 2016 shows that this veggie-grain is doing some serious campaigning in the grain department as well.
As summer cookouts and corn on the cob sales flourish, I thought it timely to dedicate a post to increasing corn knowledge. Since corn (aka maize) appears in many of our food products, is the most abundant crop grown in the US (and many countries), and even appears in many of our non-edible items (i.e. plastic!) it’s helpful to learn what makes this plant so versatile, and so clever to end up in several food categories.
Like many of my recent learning adventures for the past few years, the topic of corn began with my toddler son who happens to be devoted to anything tractor related, specifically green John Deere ones. In the many farming YouTube videos and children’s books, I’ve learned much more about farming than (surprisingly) I did growing up working on a vegetable farm. In our latest library venture, I picked up a book with a simple title, “CORN.” How could I guess that a child’s book would send me searching for more information on a single crop?
As I soon learned in the first few pages, there are many varieties of corn…primarily six, including sweet corn, dent corn, flint corn, pod corn, popcorn, and flour corn. As you can guess, sweet corn is the most popular type as a vegetable for human consumption. What makes it a vegetable is that it is picked before maturity and before the starch really begins to form, which makes it edible as it is. The longer the corn kernels remain on the cob, they begin to harden and become inedible in their raw form.
I learned this earlier in the year in the fall as we walked by some friends harvesting their corn. My little farmer man insisted on an old fashioned corn husking party, and earned himself several ears of popcorn. Later that night and the next few days, I shucked the hardened kernels off the cobs, heated some oil in a pan and tossed in the kernels and enjoyed the little people entertainment of popping our own popcorn.
Aside from homemade popcorn, the other types of corn are useful for human consumption also. Dent corn, although mostly used for animal feed, can also be processed into foods like cereal, cornmeal, tortilla chips, grits, tortillas and of course our ever-controversial, high fructose corn syrup. Surprisingly, the starch from this corn variety can even be used to make plastics! Dent corn can be grouped together with flint and flour corn and generally known as Field Corn. These corn types are also popular for producing ethanol, a corn-derived fuel.
Getting down to the plant itself explains why it becomes difficult to put corn into a food group. While not claiming any botany expertise, I did become fairly proficient in understanding corn’s reproductive parts as explained in CORN, after reading it for two weeks straight (who’s thankful for library due dates?!?). What I came to learn is that each kernel on a corn cob is actually a seed, which is how it can in one sense be labeled a fruit. The silks coming down the tassel contain little things called carpels, which become kernels when fertilized by the pollen. So next time you experience irritation at those pesky strings caught in your teeth, remember that without those silks, there would be no kernels to enjoy!
As alluded to earlier, when the kernels stay on the cob to full maturity, usually in the fall season, they become hardened as the higher sugar content matures into starch. Because these hardened kernels become the endosperm, germ and bran of the plant, it now is classified as a grain. From this stage, various corn products can be made, but one example is cornmeal, which has several processing varieties. If you’ve shopped for corn flour or cornmeal in the past, you may have been confused by the options. Here is a run-down on how the kernel processing can affect the final product:
- Masa flour: Fine ground cornmeal that has been soaked in an akaline solution like limewater, used for tamales and tortillas
- Steel-ground yellow cornmeal: The husk and germ of the kernel is mostly removed, and can be conserved for about a year in an airtight container.
- Stone-ground cornmeal has some of the hull and germ and thus retains more flavor and nutrition. It is more perishable than steel ground, but will store longer in refrigerator.
- White cornmeal made from white corn, is common in Africa and in southern US for making cornbread.
- Blue cornmeal is light blue or violet in color and gets its color from whole blue corn that has a sweet flavor. The cornmeal is typically ground into a fine or medium texture.
You can see now in just a few ways what makes corn so versatile that it has become a staple plant around the world. Beyond that, it also boasts a solid nutrient profile being high in potassium and fiber, contains several B-vitamins, phytochemicals, unsaturated fat and even a decent amount of low-quality protein and also is gluten free.
So as I conclude my brief report on corn, I would pose to my audience that perhaps it is time to move away from focusing all our attention on the tomato in the vegetable vs. fruit debate, and start including corn in the conversation. And as corn continues to rise in popularity as the number one plant and kids favorite vegetable, I think it’s time to start explaining to our posterity that there’s more to corn than they might realize. I for one, am adequately impressed at corn’s versatility, although I’ve yet to be convinced that it should go to the the cows….
Stay tuned next time for some corny, grainy recipes.
References: (ok, it’s all Wikipedia today, but it has some great info on it!)
Walls, Celeste. “The Power of Ten. Top 10 Produce Crops in the US.” https://agamerica.com/power-of-10-top-10-produce-crops-in-the-u-s/.