It has long been a misconception — by those in the general public — that all corn growing in a field is the same. This confusion is generally fueled by the mixed messages consumers have received about the corn ethanol industry’s feedstock of choice. Despite what strong opinions some have, the truth is, there are many varieties of corn with specific purposes, which are grown to meet various food and production needs. The National Corn Growers Association says approximately 12% of the U.S. corn crop ends up in foods that are consumed. What kinds of corn make up the remaining percent? To answer that question, let’s take a look at some of the major categories (these aren’t all of them, there are dozens of other special-purpose corns). It’s always good to have an overview, just in case you run into someone espousing many of the misconceptions out there surrounding this highly misunderstood grain. (Source: National Corn Growers Association, Census of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency)
- Dent Corn – Also referred to as “field corn,” dent corn is named for the dimple that forms in the middle of the corn’s kernel. According to the NCGA, dent corn accounts for approximately 99% of all corn production in the U.S. You won’t find dent corn in the grocery store, and you wouldn’t want to. It’s much starchier than sweet corn and has a bland flavor. Dent corn is used as livestock feed, for making natural corn syrup, or industrial products like clean-burning ethanol for fuel, beverages or sanitizers. Specifically, ethanol production plants employ processes to convert dent corn into ethanol. What makes dent corn suitable for these processes is that much of the kernel is starch. The means dent corn is the most efficient raw material, one that is renewable and environmentally friendly.
- Sweet Corn – Sweet corn is often what people think of when they think of corn. This variety of corn is what you’ll typically find in a grocery store or served at a barbeque. Sweet corn is harvested prematurely, before the normal conversion of sugar into starch can take place. Essentially, this means the kernels have more sugar content than starch content, allowing sweet corn to be considered a vegetable instead of a grain. According to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, sweet corn was harvested on over 28,000 farms and in all 50 states. Florida, Washington, New York, California and Georgia are the largest producers of fresh sweet corn. The production of sweet corn for processing is heavily concentrated in the upper Midwest and the Pacific Northwest, where Minnesota, Washington and Wisconsin are the leading producers. Yields average between 4 to 6 tons per acre.
- Flour Corn – You might be thinking of “cornmeal” when you hear Flour corn, but this technically isn’t the same thing. One of the oldest varieties of corn, flour corn has soft kernels consisting of soft starch content. This corn is easy to grind and is used in baked goods and a slew of other foods such as corn muffin mix.
- Popcorn – In comparison to dent corn, popcorn is a relatively minor crop, You guessed it, popcorn is a variety of corn purposed for human consumption. it is characterized by a tough outer shell encapsulating a small amount of soft starch content. According to the Popcorn Board, Americans average annual consumption of 42 quarts of popcorn each year. Wow!
- Flint Corn – Flint is used to make cornmeal and livestock feed — it’s also what is known as “Indian” corn. Flint corn has a similar use to those of dent corn but isn’t as popular. Named after its hard, glassy outer shell, the majority of the world’s flint corn is grown in Central and South America. This is largely because these areas use flint corn as a feed and food source. The U.S prefers the higher-yielding dent corn which has had infinitely higher amounts of breeding work than flint corn.
- Heirloom Corn often referred to as “Jimmy Red” – Jimmy Red is crimson red dent corn with a rich and oily germ that, back in the day, was known for making outstanding moonshine. When the last bootlegger died in the early 2000s, South Carolina farmer Ted Chewning got his hands on the last two ears of Jimmy Red corn. Chewning, a well-known seed saver, turned those two ears into seed and by carefully cultivating the seeds year after year. He gave seeds to other local farms and a few chefs, and the heirloom corn now has its own cult following. Keep in mind, heirloom corn can come in all sorts of colors, including red, white, blue, black, pink and green.