Every year, nearly 90 million acres of corn are planted in the United States, and 99 percent of it is not the sort that humans eat on the cob. Corn, after all, isn’t simply corn; there are many varieties.
Sweet corn ( or Zea mays convar. saccharata var. Rugosa if you are feeling fancy) is the type of corn eaten on the cob, and it accounts for only 1% of all maize harvested in the US each year.
The remaining 99 percent of maize grown on American farms is known as field corn (Zea mays indentata). This type of corn is referred to as “cow corn.” sometimes. But what are the differences between the two? Well, it turns out there is a lot. Read on to learn all about the different types of corn, and why you will want to avoid eating field corn.
The biggest difference between these two types of corn is what they are made for. Sweet corn is bred to be eaten by people. It is the corn you will find on corn on the cob, canned corn, and frozen corn. It has been bred to have juicy and plump kernels that are very sweet due to a high level of natural sugar, which gives it that characteristic delicious taste.
Field corn has been bred mainly for animal consumption, especially cow feed, but it has several other uses. It can be used to make renewable fuels like ethanol that is able to power the trucks on the farm, or can even be used in some cars. Only the starch part of the kernel is used for this though, the rest which includes the fat and protein is used to make the animal feed called distillers grains.
That does not mean that people can’t make use of field corn though. While people cannot eat the corn straight from the field as it is not sweet-tasting and is too hard, after being processed in a mill this corn can be made into corn flakes, corn starch, cornflower, corn syrup, and yellow corn chips.
Look and Feel
There is an obvious difference between sweet corn and field corn when you look at it. When growing in a field, sweetcorn will look shorter and more spindly. When harvested, the top of the ear turns brown to indicate that the kernels inside are perfectly ripe. The ear is also held very tightly against the stalk and when wrapped around it they look very green.
The kernels inside should appear to be very yellow with some white ones, which is a sign that the corn has been grown the perfect amount of time. The kernels should also be moist and feel soft when bitten into.
Sweet corn can be eaten directly from the field with essentially no preparation, though you should probably give it a wash first.
When looking at a field with both sweet corn and field corn, you will notice that the field corn grows much taller and has fuller leaves than the sweet corn. Field corn is harvested when the top of the ears has turned a dark brown, and the shucks around the years are the same color. After this, the rest of the plant will begin to die, but it is still not time to harvest the corn. Only when the ear is too weak that it cannot hold up the corn any longer so that the silks then fall to the ground is it finally time to harvest.
The kernels inside field corn are much larger than those found in sweet corn, but they are also a lot drier. Many of the kernels will have a dent in them that is a sign that the corn is dry, which is why this corn is sometimes called “dent corn”.
Field corn cannot be eaten from the cob due to how dry and hard it is. There is no saving it with butter either, as no matter how much you put on it will never soften up the kernels. The low sugar but high starch content means that that corn will never taste good anyways.
Sweet corn is harvested very early on its grown stage, as this gives the corn its characteristic sweetness and softness. It also keeps in a lot of moisture, making the corn very juicy. When the farmer harvests sweet corn, the corn is picked still attached to the cob which maintains its juiciness and sweetness.
Field corn may be harvested months after sweet corn, as the farmers have to allow the kernels inside to dry out completely before the product can be processed into other things. They often wait for the whole plant to die before harvesting to make sure that the kernels inside have has the maximum amount of time to dry inside the ear. To harvest this corn, farmers strip the kernels from the cob which are then starred in huge containers until they are ready to be processed or used.
What About Popcorn?
So now you may be wondering if popcorn corn is any different, and the answer to this is a big yes. Only about 220,000 acres of popcorn are cultivated in the United States each year, with Nebraska leading the way with 300 million pounds of popcorn harvested on roughly 67,000 acres.
Each popcorn kernel has a small amount of water contained inside a circle of soft starch. The water in the kernel expands as it heats up in the microwave, air popper, or on the stove, causing the kernel to burst open, resulting in a light, delicious snack. Every year, 16 billion quarts of popped popcorn are consumed in the United States.