Corn, Corn, Corn… What an Amazing Plant!
With ethanol demand wavering a bit many of my friends and partners in the ag space are wondering when the next great invention will emerge that uses corn? Let’s hope it happens sooner rather than later:)
In all seriousness, corn is truly an incredible plant with an astonishing number of uses dreamed up by humans over the centuries. From disposable diapers to fuel tanks to delivery packaging, corn is everywhere, including an average of +4,000 items found in a typical grocery store, most of which aren’t in the produce aisle.
One of the most complete compendiums of this fascinating plant was created by Betty Fussell in “The Story of Corn” published back in 1992. As she explains, corn was introduced to Europeans by Columbus in 1493 but he failed to provide any insights as to how to process the new and exciting grain, which she believes “probably changed the course of history.” While misunderstood in Europe, it was embraced by settlers in the New World.
Early uses in America were primarily as a cheap food source for livestock as well as the poor but the Industrial Revolution introduced three technologies that elevated corn to a dinner table staple for the masses. First was the iron plow that allowed Midwestern farmers to grow corn on a commercial scale. At the same time, the introduction of railroads crisscrossing the country allowed corn to travel further from the fields of middle America, along with commercial canneries that allowed for even more corn to be preserved for an increasing number of people.
Hybrid breeding programs beginning in the first half of the 1900s gave way to even higher corn output with bushels per acre increasing exponentially over the decades, which has also been propelled by other technological advances. Today, one of the most surprising things about this vegetable might be how small a percentage of annual production actually gets eaten. In fact, the bulk of corn produced in America doesn’t go to food production at all.
The corn we eat-sweet corn-accounts for only around 1% of U.S production. While small, it’s still an economically important crop, grown primarily in northern states and also as a winter crop in parts of Florida. Popcorn varieties are an even smaller portion of overall production, though it is also thought to be one of the oldest surviving types of corn. It wasn’t until the 1960s that popcorn was actually a popular treat, thanks largely to Jiffy Pop, which came in an expandable aluminum container that cooked right on the stovetop.
As any farmer knows, the most important type of corn is field corn, aka dent corn which is primarily yellow in the U.S. More than 90% of dent corn goes to animal feed. It is also used raw in industry. White dent corn has a higher starch content than yellow dent, so it is commonly used in human food products. Field corn accounts for not just the majority of corn grown in the U.S. but also the majority of corn consumed in America. So-called “invisible corn” runs through the human food chain from its use as an animal feed up to commercial sweeteners, binders, thickeners, fillers, and oils. Then there is the packaging for food and beverages that are made from corn products, along with a host of other biochemical and bioplastic uses. Of course, there is also corn-derived ethanol in the gas tank and probably even corn in the tires of the trucks and cars that transport all this stuff.
Our ability to chemically manipulate corn is almost magical, resulting in so many varied and unexpected uses, the list for what corn is NOT in is probably the short one. Below are a few more places you might be surprised to find our favorite vegetable:
Batteries: Some batteries contain corn derivatives found in the form of “bioelectricity.” Cornstarch, made from the endosperm of the corn, is often used as an electrical conductor.
Cosmetics: Corn starch is used as an alternative to talc in all kinds of cosmetics as well as personal hygiene products like deodorants.
Crayons: Dextrin, which is made from cornstarch, is used to assist with removing crayons easily from their molds. Corn products also help the paper labels to adhere to crayons.
Glues and other adhesives: Glue and other adhesives commonly contain cornmeal or cornstarch. The adhesives used on envelopes include cornstarch, which becomes sticky once moistened. Additionally, corn germ, which is the leftover substance after the oil has been removed from corn, is used to increase the adhesive qualities of industrial glue. The use of corn germ allows many of these high-intensity glues to be less expensive, as corn germ replaces some of the resin that’s typically used in fabrication.
Matches: Cornstarch is a common ingredient used in the production of matchsticks. Additionally, matchsticks that are formed on paper or cardstock may include corn products in the paper itself to increase the rigidity.
Medications: Corn syrup is a main ingredient in cough syrups and drops. More importantly, it’s key for making one of our most important drugs, penicillin. It starts with corn steep liquor, a byproduct of the process of separating the various parts of corn. It is the water used to soak the various components and it is reused in several steps. Corn steep liquor contains acids, yeast, gluten, and nitrogen, and is partially fermented by the time it leaves the mill. It was discarded as waste until the 1940s, when scientists determined that it is the perfect medium in which to grow large quantities of penicillin.
Vitamin C: The vast majority of commercially distributed vitamin C is derived from corn, which is loaded with the nutrient – half a cup of corn contains roughly 33% of your suggested daily intake of vitamin C.
Other industrial products: Soaps, paints, corks, linoleum, carpeting, polish, rubber substitutes, wallboard, textile finishings, candles, dyes, lubricants, insulation, and wallpaper…just to name a few! (Sources: World of Corn, Farm Progress, Washington Post, Story of Corn)