What is corn in?

This essay was posted initially on Ensia.com and is reprinted here with permission.

Nothing dominates the American landscape like corn.

Sprawling across the Midwest and Great Plains, the American Corn Belt is a massive thing. You can drive from central Pennsylvania all the way to western Nebraska, a trip of nearly 1,500 miles, and witness it in all its glory. No other American crop can match the sheer size of corn.

So why do we, as a nation, grow so much corn?

The main reason is that corn is such a productive and versatile crop, responding to investments in research, breeding and promotion. It has incredibly high yields compared with most other U.S. crops, and it grows nearly anywhere in the country, especially thriving in the Midwest and Great Plains. Plus, it can be turned into a staggering array of products. Corn can be used for food as corn flour, cornmeal, hominy, grits or sweet corn. It can be used as animal feed to help fatten our hogs, chickens and cattle. And it can be turned into ethanol, high-fructose corn syrup or even bio-based plastics.

No wonder we grow so much of the stuff.

But it is important to distinguish corn the crop from corn the system. As a crop, corn is highly productive, flexible and successful. It has been a pillar of American agriculture for decades, and there is no doubt that it will be a crucial part of American agriculture in the future. However, many are beginning to question corn as a system: how it dominates American agriculture compared with other farming systems; how in America it is used primarily for ethanol, animal feed and high-fructose corn syrup; how it consumes natural resources; and how it receives preferential treatment from our government.

The current corn system is not a good thing for America for four major reasons.

The American corn system is inefficient at feeding people. Most people would agree that the primary goal of agriculture should be feeding people. While other goals—especially producing income, creating jobs and fostering rural development—are critically important too, the ultimate success of any agricultural system should be measured in part by how well it delivers food to a growing population. After all, feeding people is why agriculture exists in the first place.

Although U.S. corn is a highly productive crop, with typical yields between 140 and 160 bushels per acre, the resulting delivery of food by the corn system is far lower. Today’s corn crop is mainly used for biofuels (roughly 40 percent of U.S. corn is used for ethanol) and as animal feed (roughly 36 percent of U.S. corn, plus distillers grains left over from ethanol production, is fed to cattle, pigs and chickens). Much of the rest is exported. Only a tiny fraction of the national corn crop is directly used for food for Americans, much of that for high-fructose corn syrup.

Yes, the corn fed to animals does produce valuable food to people, mainly in the form of dairy and meat products, but only after suffering major losses of calories and protein along the way. For corn-fed animals, the efficiency of converting grain to meat and dairy calories ranges from roughly 3 percent to 40 percent, depending on the animal production system in question. What this all means is that little of the corn crop actually ends up feeding American people. It’s just math. The average Iowa cornfield has the potential to deliver more than 15 million calories per acre each year (enough to sustain 14 people per acre, with a 3,000 calorie-per-day diet, if we ate all of the corn ourselves), but with the current allocation of corn to ethanol and animal production, we end up with an estimated 3 million calories of food per acre per year, mainly as dairy and meat products, enough to sustain only three people per acre. That is lower than the average delivery of food calories from farms in Bangladesh, Egypt and Vietnam.

In short, the corn crop is highly productive, but the corn system is aligned to feed cars and animals instead of feeding people.

There are a number of ways to improve the delivery of food from the nation’s corn system. First and foremost, shifting corn away from biofuels would generate more food for the world, lower demand for grain, lessen commodity price pressures, and reduce the burden on consumers around the world. Furthermore, eating less corn-fed meat, or shifting corn toward more efficient dairy, poultry, pork and grass-fed beef systems, would allow us to get more food from each bushel of corn. And diversifying the Corn Belt into a wider mix of agricultural systems, including other crops and grass-fed animal operations, could produce substantially more food—and a more diverse and nutritious diet— than the current system.

The corn system uses a large amount of natural resources. Even though it does not deliver as much food as comparable systems around the globe, the American corn system continues to use a large proportion of our country’s natural resources.

In the U.S., corn uses more land than any other crop, spanning some 97 million acres— an area roughly the size of California. U.S. corn also consumes a large amount of our freshwater resources, including an estimated 5.6 cubic miles per year of irrigation water withdrawn from America’s rivers and aquifers. And fertilizer use for corn is massive: over 5.6 million tons of nitrogen is applied to corn each year through chemical fertilizers, along with nearly a million tons of nitrogen from manure. Much of this fertilizer, along with large amounts of soil, washes into the nation’s lakes, rivers and coastal oceans, polluting waters and damaging ecosystems along the way. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the largest, and most iconic, example of this.

And the resources devoted to growing corn are increasing dramatically. Between 2006 and 2011, the amount of cropland devoted to growing corn in America increased by more than 13 million acres, mainly in response to rising corn prices and the increasing demand for ethanol. Most of these new corn acres came from farms, including those that were growing wheat (which lost 2.9 million acres), oats (1.7 million acres lost), sorghum (1 million acres lost), barley, alfalfa, sunflower and other crops. That leaves us with a less diverse American agricultural landscape, with even more land devoted to corn monocultures. And according to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, roughly 1.3 million acres of grassland and prairie were converted to corn and other uses in the western Corn Belt between 2006 and 2011, presenting a threat to the waterways, wetlands and species that reside there.

Looking at these land, water, fertilizer and soil costs together, you could argue that the corn system uses more natural resources than any other agricultural system in America, while providing only modest benefits in food. It’s a dubious trade-off—depleting natural resources to deliver relatively little food and nutrition to the world. But it doesn’t need to be that way. Innovative farmers are exploring other methods for growing corn, including better conventional, organic, biotech and conservation farming methods that can dramatically reduce chemical inputs, water use, soil losses and impacts on wildlife. We should encourage American farmers to continue these improvements.

The corn system is highly vulnerable to shocks. Although a large monoculture dominating much of the country with a single cropping system might be an efficient and profitable way to grow corn at an industrial scale, there is a price to being so big, with so little diversity. Given enough time, most massive monocultures fail, often spectacularly. And with today’s high demand and low grain stocks, corn prices are very volatile, driving spikes in the price of commodities around the world. Under these conditions, a single disaster, disease, pest or economic downturn could cause a major disturbance in the corn system.

The monolithic nature of corn production presents a systemic risk to America’s agriculture, with impacts ranging from food prices to feed prices and energy prices. It also presents a potential threat to our economy and to the taxpayers who end up footing the bill when things go sour. This isn’t rocket science: You wouldn’t invest in a mutual fund that was dominated by only one company, because it would be intolerably risky. But that’s what we’re doing with American agriculture. Simply put, too many of our agricultural eggs are in one basket.

A more resilient agricultural system would start by diversifying our crops, shifting some of the corn monoculture to a landscape rich with a variety of crops, pastures and prairies. It would more closely mimic natural ecosystems and include a mixture of perennial and different seasonal plants—not just summertime annuals with shallow roots that are especially sensitive to dry spells. Furthermore, it would include conservation tillage and organic farming practices that improve soil conditions by restoring soil structure, organic content and water holding capacity, making farming landscapes much more resilient to floods and droughts. The overall result would be a landscape better prepared to weather the next drought, flood, disease or pest.

The corn system operates at a big cost to taxpayers. Finally, the corn system receives more subsides from the U.S. government than any other crop, including direct payments, crop insurance payments and mandates to produce ethanol. In all, U.S. crop subsidies to corn totaled roughly $90 billion between 1995 and 2010—not including ethanol subsidies and mandates, which helped drive up the price of corn.

Today, one of the biggest corn subsidies come in the form of federally supported crop insurance. In fact, for the 2012 season U.S. crop insurance programs will likely pay out an estimated $20 billion or more—shattering all previous records. Amazingly, these record subsidies are being paid as corn just had one of the most lucrative years in history. Even with the 2012 drought, high prices meant that U.S. corn broke record sales figures. Do record subsidies make sense during a year of record sales?

Naturally, some farmers were hit harder by the drought than others, and crop insurance programs are intended to help them make up these losses. That’s a noble goal. But should taxpayers be paying higher prices for a crop that was never harvested?

It might be time to rethink our crop subsidy programs, to focus tax dollars where they will achieve the greatest public good. We should help farmers recover their losses during a natural disaster, making them whole again, but not gain from failed harvests at public expense. We should also consider helping all farmers who suffered losses, not just those growing only certain commodity crops. And we should look to support farmers for important things that markets don’t address, such as reducing runoff and erosion, improving soil and biodiversity, and providing jobs for rural America. Farmers are the stewards of our nation’s most fertile lands and should be rewarded for their work to carefully manage these resources.

Bottom line: We need a new approach to corn

As a crop, corn is an amazing thing and a crucial part of the American agricultural toolbox. But the corn system, as we currently know it, is an agricultural juggernaut, consuming more land, more natural resources and more taxpayer dollars than any other farming system in modern U.S. history. As a large monoculture, it is a vulnerable house of cards, precariously perched on publicly funded subsidies. And the resulting benefits to our food system are sparse, with the majority of the harvested calories lost to ethanol or animal feedlot production. In short, our investment of natural and financial resources is not paying the best dividends to our national diet, our rural communities, our federal budget or our environment. It’s time to reimagine a system that will.

What would such a system look like?

This reimagined agricultural system would be a more diverse landscape, weaving corn together with many kinds of grains, oil crops, fruits, vegetables, grazing lands and prairies. Production practices would blend the best of conventional, conservation, biotech and organic farming. Subsidies would be aimed at rewarding farmers for producing more healthy, nutritious food while preserving rich soil, clean water and thriving landscapes for future generations. This system would feed more people, employ more farmers and be more sustainable and more resilient than anything we have today.

It is important to note that these criticisms of the larger corn system—a behemoth largely created by lobbyists, trade associations, big businesses and the government—are not aimed at farmers. Farmers are the hardest working people in America, and are pillars of their communities. It would be simply wrong to blame them for any of these issues. In this economic and political landscape, they would be crazy not to grow corn; farmers are simply delivering what markets and policies are demanding. What needs to change here is the system, not the farmers.

And no matter what happens, this won’t mean the end of corn. Far from it. Corn crops will always be a major player in American agriculture. But with the current corn system dominating our use of natural resources and public dollars, while delivering less food and nutrition than other agricultural systems, it’s time ask tough questions and demand better solutions.

Jonathan Foley, @GlobalEcoGuy, is the director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. The views expressed here are his own, and do not reflect those of the University of Minnesota or any other organization.

Types and uses of maize

There are a number of different types of maize:

  • Field corn in the U.S. is used mainly to feed livestock, but in other countries is used for human consumption as well.
  • Sweet corn, the type most commonly eaten in the U.S., is a genetic variation that accumulates more sugar and less starch in the kernels; it is usually shorter than field corn.
  • Baby corn, popularly used in Asian cuisine, is a variety of maize developed to produce many small ears, rather than a few larger ones. The ears are harvested very young while they are still immature, and are tender enough for the whole ear to be eaten.
  • Popcorn, the ability of maize kernels to “pop” and expand upon heating, was also discovered by the Native Americans. Maize is able to pop because, unlike other grains, its kernels have a hard moisture-sealing hull and a dense starchy filling. When heated, pressure builds inside the kernel until an explosive “pop” results, and the starch expands and then hardens in the cooler air. Many maize varieties will pop, but some varieties have been specifically cultivated for this purpose.
  • Indian corn was originally the term applied to what we now know as maize or corn, to differentiate it from the generic term of “corn” Europeans used for all grains at that time. Now, it usually refers to any corn that has different colored kernels. Usually it is dried and used for ornamental purposes.

Maize can also be used in a number of other ways:

  • Maize flour, or meal, is made into a thick porridge in many cultures (polenta, Italy; angu, Brazil; mãmãligã, Romania; sadza, nshima, ugali, and mealie pap, Africa). Maize meal is also used as a replacement for wheat flour, to make cornbread and other baked products.
  • Masa (cornmeal treated with lime water) is the main ingredient for tortillas, atole, and many other dishes of Mexican food.
  • Cornstarch is made from maize kernels, which are high in starch, and used as a thickening agent in soups.
  • Corn syrup is used as a sweetener instead of sugar in thousands of products, including soda, candy, cookies and bread.
  • Kitty litter made from maize is environmentally-friendly.
  • Corn for cows, hogs, catfish and chickens: the largest market for maize in the U.S. is actually as food for livestock (sometimes called fodder, or silage). Cows eat field corn, not the sweet corn that people in the U.S. usually eat. Maize is also a large component of commercial chicken feed, as well as food for catfish, especially in farmed catfish.
  • Maize mazes: mazes are a fun use of maize. Rows of maize are planted in the shape of a maze. The locations of some “amazing maize mazes” can be found here: http://www.americanmaze.com/

Other Resources:

  • A zillion uses for corn!
  • South Dakota Corn (see: uses of, info about)

Factbox: Corn plant and products made from corn

(Reuters) – Corn is sometimes referred to as “yellow gold” because it is used to make so many products and byproducts that end up throughout the economy from food store shelves to gas pumps to industrial chemical plants.

Key facts about corn processing and consumption:

* The processing of corn starts with the kernel — there are usually 200-400 kernels on every corn cob harvested in the United States.

* During the wet milling process the outer part of the kernel is removed and used to make animal feed.

* The seed tip is removed to produce corn oil.

* Endosperm – the carbohydrate rich, starchy bulk of the corn kernel – is the raw material for fermentation and transformation into a sugary referred to as “the dextrose stream.”

* The United States produces 40 percent of the world’s corn supplies and accounts for more than half of world corn exports.

* About 85 percent of the 2010 U.S. corn crop of 13 billion bushels at 56 lbs per bushel will be used for food, animal feed and a myriad of industrial product uses.

Breakdown of corn’s major uses:

* Food products — Cereals, snack foods, salad dressings, soft drink sweeteners, chewing gum, peanut butter, hominy grits, taco shells and other flour products, specialty corn including white corn, blue corn and popcorn .

* Animal feeds — Distiller’s dried grain, gluten feed and meal, high-oil feed corn for cattle, swine, poultry and fish.

* Industrial products — Soaps, paints, corks, linoleum, polish, adhesives, rubber substitutes, wallboard, dry-cell batteries, textile finishings, cosmetic powders, candles, dyes, pharmaceuticals, lubricants, insulation, wallpaper and other starch products.

* Fermentation products and byproducts — industrial alcohols, fuel ethanol, recyclable plastics, industrial enzymes, fuel octane enhancers, fuel oxygenates and solvents.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Corn Growers Association

Editing by Alden Bentley

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


Protective Sealing Bands

Some things that feature the use of corn products are so bizarre they almost make you do a double take. I was opening a fresh can of oatmeal when I noticed the safety seal banding the lid had some writing on it. Sure enough, it proclaimed it was manufactured from corn. It felt exactly like plastic. And this, friends, is one of the properties of corn’s simple sugar called dextrose. When extracted and separated, its starchy compounds can be used in myriad forms, including plastic-like products. In this oatmeal’s case, it makes virtually the entire container biodegradable.

Gypsum Drywall

We all know corn contains a wicked amount of starch; we know this because there is such a thing as cornstarch, and its use is to gelatinize and thicken things such as sauces and gravies. But in the non-food world, starches often times are used in a completely different way. In the instance of gypsum drywall — and you know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever helped build a room add-on or a house — cornstarch is used in chelation, where its properties help prevent the formation of unwanted molds on the finished board. So, in theory, you probably could take a bite out of drywall, but I wouldn’t suggest it.


So ya wanna make something out of wood. Well good for you. But, if you want it to last, it might not be a bad idea to protect it with some kind of wash. How about varnish? Sounds good. Oh, and just in case you were thinking of drinking it (ya know, cuz the fumes get you all funky in the head) at least one ingredient is made from corn. It’ll still kill you… but I just thought you should know. Anyway, the chemical in the varnish derived from modified corn oil is called alkyd, and it’s responsible for that lustrous film varnish leaves behind. Pretty!

Spark Plugs

Spark plugs, in their most basic sense, are made from metal and ceramic. So how the heck does corn fit into this? Well, if you shut up, I’ll tell you. You see, it’s all in the ceramics — the molded crystalline product that is very resistant to high temperatures, such as those in your engine. They also tend to withstand the caustic properties of certain acidic solvents, which is also good since your engine is pretty rife with that stuff, too. As it turns out, when one of the many crystalline structures of cornstarch is heated, it hardens and acts as a type of insulator. And now you know.


Ever wonder how you’re able to lick glue on things like envelopes and most stamps? Corn. That’s right, were it not for the gelling and sticky nature of the starch (here we go with that again) in corn, everyone’s mail would arrive already open. Rim shot. Anyway, the starch reacts with moisture (spit) and turns gluey, literally. Then, as it dries, the bond holds things together. But it’s not just this type of corn-based adhesive that gets used a lot. Nope, there’s a thing called nitrocellulose glue. This stuff, as it turns out, is pretty nasty thanks in large part to the fact that it’s created by, “nitrating cellulose (plant fibers) through exposure to nitric acid or another powerful nitrating agent.” Oohhhh, that’s good nitric!


Should it really come as any surprise, after reading what you’ve just read, that there’s corn in toothpaste? No, it really shouldn’t. But this time the little corny surprise is hidden deep within the paste’s sweeteners. Can you imagine toothpaste without some kind of saccharine sugariness to it? It would, literally, taste like soapy minerals. That would make my kids want to brush even less than they already do! In most cases, the sweetness is called sorbitol and is derived from the reduction of corn’s glucose. This ingredient, however tasty, also works as a laxative. So, as substitute sweeteners go, it’s best you don’t eat the Crest that’s laden with it.


Acetylsalicylic acid. That, kids, is the scientific name for good old Aspirin. But what could corn possibly have to do with America’s favorite pain reliever? Well, it’s really not just Aspirin that has it. In fact, not even all Aspirin pills have it, because the corn is found in the coating that helps us humans gulp it down. Its really hard to pronounce name is Cellulose acetate phthalate, or just CAP, and its job is to keep all the meds inside the capsule for both ease in swallowing and for time release, so it doesn’t just go off in our throats. Oddly enough, the cellulose-based polymer is almost completely resistant to stomach acid, but will break down regularly in the intestines. I guess this explains why meds seem to take so long to friggin work!


The next time you’re elbow deep in a kid’s crappy diaper, why not take a second to thank corn that his or her piss isn’t dripping off every vertical surface in the room. Why? Because thanks to our friend corn, that superabsorbent layer layer with all of its gelling capabilities is made from, you guessed it… corn. Until the 1980s, strictly cellulose-based polymers were used in these types of absorbent materials, but now it’s a little more complicated than that. Now, these compounds are made from, “the polymerization of acrylic acid blended with sodium hydroxide.” But what’s acrylic acid? Well, it’s found in the ethylene, which just happens to be a plant hormone. Found in corn. Bingo.

Tire Construction

Okay. Tires? Seriously? Well… kind of. Much like many things that need to be molded and easily released (that sounded sexy), including jelly beans, licorice candies and some non-extruded plastics, tires are made via press creation. Rubber is pumped into a mold, the mold is opened and bam, tire! Okay, it’s not that simple, but you get the basic idea. Anyway, in order for the hot rubber not to stick to the metal, powder cornstarch is used just before it’s pumped in thereby making for a far easier, uh, release. Still sexy. Also, inside some synthetic rubbers is a compound we’ll look at in the next one…

Coated Paper Products

Not all paper is simply bleached wood pulp. There are variations in type that make specific papers better suited for specific applications. One style of coating is called a viscosifier, and it’s made from styrene-butadiene latexes. Yeah, that’s a ton of chemistry coming at you right there, so, basically, it’s the butadiene we’re concerned with since it is a byproduct of the steam-cracking process of ethylene. Which, as we all know, comes from corn. Hence, ethyl alcohol. Makes sense now, right? Yeah, well… clicking those links will help a little. But I’ve been looking at them all day, and I’m still just nodding and smiling.

10 Ways We Use Corn

The most historically American crop is also the most versatile. Corn (Zea mays) is essentially grass that has been cultivated and bred to the size it is today. Originally cultivated in Mexico 7,000 years ago, corn is now America’s biggest crop and a staple of the global food supply. Corn is used in many ways other than feasting on at the dinner table or popping for movie snacks, some you might not even realize.

(Image by Flickr user Sasakei)

1. Cornmeal

Cornmeal is made by grinding whole corn. The coarsest meal is called grits, which is used to make corn flakes. A somewhat finer grade is sold in stores to make cornbread, deep-fry batter, and hushpuppies. Even more finely ground meal is called corn cones, and is used for baking and for dusting pizza dough. The finest grade of ground corn is corn flour, used for pancakes, donuts, breading, and baby food. Another type of cornmeal is called masa flour, which is made by treating corn with lime (alkalai). This releases the corn’s niacin into a form the body can use. The resulting whole corn is called hominy, and ground treated corn is dried and powdered to make masa flour, which is then used to make tortillas and tamales.

When you get past corn as a whole food in itself, you get into the wet-mill process, which breaks down corn into its components, and here is where you get so many other corn products.

(Image source: University of Nebraska Institute of Agriculture)

2. Penicillin

Corn steep liquor is a byproduct of the process of separating the various parts of corn (see the byproduct in this flowchart). 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 plenty of nitrogen, and is partially fermented by the time it leaves the mill. It was discarded as waste until the 1940s, when scientists determined that corn steep liquor is the perfect medium in which to grow large quantities of penicillin.

3. Starch

Corn Starch is made from the endosperm of the corn, the part of the seed that exists to nourish the potential new plant. After the hull and germ are removed, the endosperm is ground up and the gluten is separated from the starch, leaving nothing but carbohydrate. Corn starch is used as a thickening agent for liquid food and an alternative to talc in body powder. It is mixed with sugar to make confectioners sugar and was once used to make clothing keep a nicely-pressed look. Corn starch is also the main ingredient in biodegradable plastic.

4. Sugar

Corn syrup is made from corn starch. Starch is a carbohydrate, a molecular chain of sugars. Enzymes are added to the starch to break the chains into sugars, mainly glucose. Further processing can change the sugars into high-fructose corn syrup. HFCS is used to sweeten a variety of products, most notably soft drinks. Corn syrup is much cheaper and sweeter than cane sugar. A number of studies have linked the use of HFCS to the rise in obesity. Whether this correlation (which does not prove causation) is due to any organic differences between HFCS and cane sugar or to the quantity consumed is still under debate. The Corn Refiner’s Association has asked the FDA for permission to change the term used for high-fructose corn syrup to “corn sugar”.

5. Whiskey

(Image by Flickr user Bluegrass Annie)

People have made liquor from their crops for thousands of years, and in the western hemisphere that meant whiskey distilled from corn. During the settlement of the Appalachian Mountains by European immigrants, farmers found it much easier to transport their corn crop to distant markets when they distilled it first (and just as profitable, if not more so). Taxes imposed during the Civil War and later liquor prohibition laws split the corn whiskey industry into the legal distilling of Bourbon and the illegal distilling of moonshine, so called because it was produced at night to evade notice.

6. Ethanol

(Image by Flickr user Jeffrey Beall)

Distilled alcohol from grain is called ethanol. The word in modern usage usually refers to ethanol fuel or biofuel made by distilling corn. Regular gasoline-powered cars can run on gas blended with up to 10% ethanol. Corn is a renewable resource, so biofuels are seen as a replacement for fossil fuels. However, the growing use of corn for biofuel raises concerns about the diminishing availability of corn for food. Also, the production of biofuels uses as much -or more- energy than it produces.

7. Cornsilk

Tea brewed from cornsilk is used as a remedy for urinary tract infections, as it has diuretic properties. The tea has been marketed to help everything from bedwetting to diabetes to cancer, but the medical community says there is insufficient evidence for such claims. Cornsilk is not harmful to most people, but there are some warnings for those with some health conditions or who are taking certain medications.

8. Corn Cobs

Corn cobs might seem like the throwaway part of corn, but have their uses -and more uses are discovered or developed all the time. Ground cobs are used for livestock feed. Traditional farm uses include animal bedding, toilet paper substitute, landfill, fuel, and to make corn cob jelly. Modern industrial products made from corn cobs include absorbents for oil and hazardous waste, insecticides, fertilizer, and grit for tumbling and blasting. Cobs, as well as corn stalks, are starting to be used to produce ethanol. And you can still make a pipe out of a corn cob.

9. Oil

Oil is produced by squeezing the germ of the corn. It is used as a food ingredient and for frying food in (most appropriately for popping popcorn). Margarine is often made from corn oil, although other oils are used as well. Corn oil is also used in many cosmetics, soaps, medicines, and other products.

10. Glue

Corn germ is a waste product of the separation of corn components. It is what’s left of the plant germ after the oil has been pressed out, and is used for livestock feed. However, components of corn germ can be used to make industrial glue stronger. This reduces the amount of resin required in the glue formula, which should make the adhesive less expensive to produce.

(Image by Flickr user Terry McCombs)

Meanwhile, we can use corn in all its harvest glory to decorate our homes and businesses for autumn.

Today is October 10, 2010—10.10.10! To celebrate, we’ve got all our writers working on 10 lists, which we’ll be posting throughout the day and night. To see all the lists we’ve published so far, .

What Is Corn Used For: Learn About Unusual Corn Uses

Corn on the cob is a popular choice for cookouts, and who goes to the movies without buying popcorn? That’s not all corn can be used for though. There are lots of alternative uses of corn.

What can you make with corn? The list is pretty long actually. Read on for information on unusual corn uses and tips on how to use corn in new ways in the kitchen.

What is Corn Used For?

Corn (also called maize) is one of the basic foods for much of the world. Combined with rice, it creates a complete protein relied on for sustenance in much of Africa and South America. In the United States, corn is considered more of a side vegetable dish, often eaten on the cob or else in kernels from a can. You don’t have to look very far though to find more alternative uses of corn.

How to Use Corn in Cooking

If you are wondering about alternative uses of corn, first consider different types of corn-based recipes. Corn tortillas and corn chips are familiar foods made from corn that you can prepare yourself at home. Other delicious recipes to try include corn bread, corn cob jelly, corn fritters, corn casserole, and corn salsa.

For more unusual corn uses in the kitchen, think about desserts. They don’t call it “sweet corn” for nothing! Corn works very well to add starch and creamy textures to desserts. You can make sweet corn ice cream, sweet corn crème brulee, or even chocolate hazelnut sweet corn cake.

What Can You Make with Corn?

It may surprise you that the majority of corn grown these days does not go to food production. It is used to make ethanol gas, batteries, plastics, crayons, whiskey, glue, and cough drops.

Cornstarch (a corn derivative) is a common ingredient in hygiene products, matchsticks, and many medications and vitamins. It is used as a thickening agent in liquids and substituted for talc in powders.

What is corn used for in medications? Often, the vegetable is used in the form of cornstarch to bind medication and helps pills hold their form. It also helps tablets disintegrate after they are ingested. Finally, corn is rich in vitamin C. Many vitamin C supplements are made from corn.

13 ways corn is used in our everyday lives

Corn is most often thought of as a food. Perhaps if you’re an avid cook, you might even think of cornstarch or corn-based food additives, or perhaps those who follow the oil and gas news might think of ethanol. However, recent years have seen this dinner staple’s uses expand greatly. In fact, the bulk of corn that’s produced today does not go to food production. You’re probably using corn in ways that you don’t even realize as you go about your daily business. The countless uses of corn have prompted some interest in corn as an investable asset, and prices have surged in recent years as demand has increased.

How Corn Is Used In Plastic

Plastics aren’t entirely made up of synthetic substances – in fact, corn-based plastics have become very popular in recent years as companies strive to find methods for reducing the environmental impact of plastics. Corn-based plastics use up to 68% less fossil fuels in production than traditional plastics, and are estimated to emit 55% less greenhouse gases. Additionally, many of these plastics are also biodegradable. You’ll find corn plastics used in food containers and plastic food packaging, disposable dishware and gift cards.

Yes, Corn Is In Your Batteries

Ethanol isn’t the only form of energy derived from corn. Some batteries also contain corn derivatives found in the form of “bioelectricity.” In batteries, cornstarch is often used as an electrical conductor.

It Even Makes You Smell Better

Cornstarch is a common ingredient in many cosmetic and hygiene items, including deodorants. Many natural or homemade deodorants include cornstarch as an ingredient because of its absorbent nature; however, many gel deodorants also contain a corn derivative in the form of denatured alcohol, also known as ethanol. Similarly, hand sanitizer also typically contains ethanol.

Or Eases The Common Cold

Corn syrup is one of the main ingredients in cough drops. It provides the sweetness that is found in most cough drops, and also helps provide the shape and candy-like texture of cough drops. Corn syrup is used in this capacity because traditional sugars often form crystals or dust-like particles while blending. Luckily, corn syrup doesn’t share this undesirable trait in the manufacturing process.

Where Would Babies Be Without Corn?

You can thank the absorbent nature of cornstarch for its assistance in the production of diapers. Though the absorbent layer found in modern-day diapers is typically made with acrylic acid, which is a component of ethylene – another derivative of corn, you’ll also find traditional cornstarch used in diaper production. Baby powder, an item which is often used along with diapers, also typically contains cornstarch thanks to its absorbent nature.

Corn Helps Matches Burn Bright

Corn, and more specifically 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. Additionally, you can also purchase pellet stoves that burn corn-based pellets to heat your home.

Vast list of corn uses

From Crop To Medication

Many medications and vitamins contain corn products, particularly cornstarch. The starch is often used as a binder or within the tablet’s coating, and helps drugs to hold their form. Additionally, cornstarch is used as an agent that helps the tablets to disintegrate after they are ingested. Cornstarch is an appealing ingredient for these uses because it is a safe and natural product that’s generally quite easily digested by humans.

Corn Is Beneath Our Feet

Carpets and other textile products now make wide use of corn in their production. This is often found in petroleum-based textile production, but can also be found in colorings or dyes. Corn-based products are often preferable to petroleum-based products in textile production because they are typically better for the environment.

Vitamin C(orn)

The vast majority of commercially distributed vitamin C is derived from corn. Corn is rich with vitamin C (half a cup of corn contains roughly 33% of your suggested daily intake of vitamin C), which makes it an appealing source for adding vitamin C to enrich various products, or in the production of vitamin C tablets.

Corn For Crayons

Those colorful crayons that children play with can also attribute their form to the inclusion of corn-based derivatives. 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.

Yogurt And Corn

Though perhaps you’re not likely to see corn-flavored yogurt lining the grocery store shelves any time soon, you may be surprised to learn that corn is an ingredient in many types of yogurt. You might find corn syrup used as a sweetener in yogurt, and cornstarch is often used to help get the right consistency in both yogurt and ice cream.

Corn Holds Our World Together

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.

A Sweet Tooth For Corn

You’ll generally find corn used in candies and other confectionary items in two ways. First, corn syrup is often used as a sweetener in beverages, candies and other sweets. Also, candies that are formed in molds often contain cornstarch in order to get the fine details to hold their shape – think of gummy candies that have fine details, like character shapes or imprinted logos. Additionally, corn products are used to give some types of candies a chewy texture. You’ll find corn used in virtually any type of sweetened product.

The Bottom Line

Toothpaste, dish detergent, paper, clothing dyes, explosives and soaps; there is a vast list of products that contain corn products. In fact, it is estimated that one quarter of items found in a grocery store contain corn in some form. You may not always see it on the ingredient listing for food products, but if you see such ingredients as xanthan gum, polyols (artificial sweeteners) or fructose, there’s a chance corn is hiding away somewhere in those food items. Outside of foods, many petroleum-based production processes are now including corn products in an effort to make manufacturing more environmentally friendly. So, whether you’re for it or against it, the wide range of uses for corn has expanded well beyond the usual suspects. In fact, it’s become rather hard to imagine our world without this diverse and dependable staple.

Food, Fuel & Fiber

Corn is used in thousands of products.

Watch the video on the many uses of corn!

Corn is an incredibly versatile crop, which means it can be used for a variety of products.

Corn is renewable and we can grow more every year (and, boy, do Nebraska farmers know how to grow corn!)

Just about anything that can be made from a barrel of oil can be made from a bushel of corn—and that’s why renewable, environmentally-friendly corn is replacing petroleum products in everything from fuel to adhesives to cleaning solutions.

Corn starch helps frozen food retain their texture and helps make glue stronger. You’ll find corn in some form in crayons, house paint, printer ink, fireworks, antifreeze, automobile tires and carpeting, Bioplastics made with corn include bottles and disposable plates, flatware and drinking cups. There’s even clothing and bedding made with corn fibers!

Continually Seeking New Uses for Corn

As Nebraska farmers continue to grow more corn with less water and fewer inputs, it is critically important that corn farmers continue to invest in building demand for their product which they grow more efficiently and in abundance every year.

While traditional uses for corn such as livestock feed and biofuels will always be major markets for corn, finding innovative new uses for corn is also a significant focus as farmers look to diversify their market portfolio. Through their checkoff, Nebraska corn farmers fund research to identify even more ways in which corn can be used to replace petroleum in chemicals, plastics, fibers, and other everyday products. Additional research is focused on how specific components of corn can be extracted from the kernel and repurposed to improve human health, medicine, human and animal nutrition and other key areas of promise.

Food & Fuel

” Discover more about ethanol

Farmers are continually looking for ways to increase demand for their corn. Once of the most important advancements has been the development of the renewable fuels industry—converting agricultural crops into fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel. This has caused some people to express concern that we are taking food from people’s mouths and putting it into our gas tanks. That simply is not the case.

First, it’s important to understand that most of the corn we grow in Nebraska is not the sweet corn typically used for human food. It is field corn primarily used for livestock feed or to make fuel (ethanol). So when we choose to make products from corn, we are not choosing between feeding people and fueling our cars. In fact, corn is so versatile that it can do both—and more—at the same time!

Fuel for Our Vehicles

A large amount of the corn produced in Nebraska is used to make ethanol, a clean-burning fuel that is added to regular gasoline. Ethanol improves engine performance and reduces harmful tailpipe emissions that threaten human health. In fact, the American Lung Association considers ethanol its “Clean Air Choice” for our fuel.

Ethanol also helps reduce the cost of fuel at the pump.

Unlike petroleum which is in limited supply, ethanol is made from renewable corn that we can grow year after year after year. Ethanol burns cleaner than gasoline, so adding ethanol to our fuel reduces the level of toxic chemicals in fuel and reduces the harmful particulate matter in vehicle exhaust.

You can learn more about ethanol at: AmericanEthanolNE.org

Feed for Animals

At an ethanol production plant, only the starch in a kernel of field corn is used to make fuel. The rest of the corn kernel is processed into a number of co-products including livestock feed, corn oil, sweetener, and other food ingredients, such carbon dioxide used in beverages.

The most abundant co-product is distillers grains, a high-value livestock feed. From beef cattle to dairy cows, from pigs to chickens—distillers grains provide a nutritious and efficient feed source for livestock producers. These animals then produce the meat and dairy products we all enjoy.

So, when we make ethanol out of field corn, we’re not just making fuel. We’re producing feed and food as well!

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)

The most common sweetener made from corn is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is sometimes called “corn sugar.” You’ll find HFCS in numerous foods and beverages in the United States.

High fructose corn syrup is made of either 42 percent or 55 percent fructose, with the remaining sugars being primarily glucose and higher sugars. HFCS is nearly identical to table sugar (sucrose), which is made of 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose. Glucose is one of the simplest forms of sugar that serves as a building block for most carbohydrates. Fructose is a simple sugar commonly found in fruits and honey.

Research shows there is little difference between HFCS and any other sweeteners. It adds calories in the same way that sugar, fruit juice concentrate and honey add calories to foods and drinks. They all contribute the same number of calories per gram.

The scientific community and people who know sweeteners and nutrition, agree that HFCS and sucrose are metabolically equivalent and that all sweeteners should be consumed in moderation.

” The American Medical Association examined this topic

GMOs & Biotechnology

” Discover more about GMOs.

Genetic management and selective breeding have been used for centuries. Today, we’re just doing it better.

As farmers and ranchers work to meet the daunting challenge of feeding an exploding global population, they continue to grow more with less – less water, less land, less fertilizer and pesticides and less impact on the environment.

Currently, genetically modified (GM) crops – also referred to as “biotechnology” or “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs) – are an important part of a farmer’s portfolio. But they are not an end-all solution, just another tool in an increasingly robust toolbox.

Genetic modification simply refers to human intervention to create a different genetic combination to create a desired outcome. Biotechnology allows researchers to create gene combinations that result in diversity and enhanced performance. The focus in agriculture is to help plants, including corn plants, overcome stresses and challenges that keep them from achieving their full genetic potential.

For example, there are plants resistant to insects and others that tolerate specific kinds of herbicide. Eliminating damage from pests keeps corn plants healthier and stronger and better able to withstand stresses like dry soil because roots are healthier and can absorb more available moisture.

Reducing pressure from weeds means nutrients and water are more available to the corn, and farmers have to till less (or not at all), which helps keep soil and nutrients in place, which is a plus for sustainability. Newer corn hybrids are drought tolerant, helping plants produce more corn during dry years.

Crops that are genetically modified go through significant approval processes, including reviews by the USDA, FDA and EPA – and to date there is not a single documented case of a food allergy or human health situation due to crop biotechnology.

For more information: GMOAnswers.com


In most households, women are the decision makers when it comes to food purchases. And more and more women are becoming interested – and in some cases, concerned – about what they are hearing about where their family’s food comes from and how it’s produced. Who better to talk with about these concerns than a fellow mom who helps produce that food?

That’s the focus of CommonGround, a national initiative in which volunteer farm women interact with urban women in grocery stores, food shows and other events across America. While many CommonGround conversations take place in large urban areas, these conversations are also taking place in communities across Nebraska.

This is where the Nebraska CommonGround volunteers come in. They, like their counterparts in other states, aim to have conversations with women in Nebraska and across the country who buy food. They answer questions and share facts, as well as their personal stories of farm life.

18 Surprising, Everyday Items Made With Corn

Love it or hate it, Americans truly are a corn-fed people. Back under President Nixon, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz ended New Deal farming programs, provided subsidies so farmers could grow as much corn as they could at a government-supported loss, and shut down many family farms with his “get big or get out” mentality. Great swaths of the nation are now dedicated to growing corn — most of it inedible “Number Two” commodity corn, not ever meant to be food until being highly processed — in an unsustainable, more-is-more, monoculture-driven environment. As a result of this surplus of corn, we’ve come up with very interesting places to hide it.

We’re not just looking at the usual suspects here. It doesn’t take very much sleuthing to figure out what has cornstarch (pudding) or high fructose corn syrup (everything) or that your meat — primarily that from cows, pigs, and chickens — is fed with so much corn that you could eat nothing but meat and still have corn isotopes in your system. We’re looking at the stuff that needs a little more digging to uncover.

Whether you have corn allergies or a gluten sensitivity, you love corn and feel better about using it for everything, you dislike ingesting corn designed to burst the stomachs of insects, and survive pesticide/weed-killer baths in everything you eat, or you’re not the biggest fan of government programs and subsidies — this slideshow has something for everyone: a surprising look at just how much of your life involves corn.

*This is by no means a complete list.

Photo by Miguel Villagran/Getty Images

1. Gas and Oil

As a way to trim oil dependence in a post-9/11 world and use up all our excess corn, the federal government actually mandated that we started cutting our gasoline with ethanol, a corn-derived alcohol. Recently in the news because of a one-way-or-another face-off between Big Oil and Big Agro, the government had to decide if they were going to lessen the mandate from 10 percent to 4 percent ethanol or increase it to 15 percent ethanol. Considering that cars aren’t built to run efficiently on higher amounts of ethanol and that it’s seriously contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a reduction.

2. Gypsum Drywall

Chelation, which prevents mold on the drywall boards, is made with cornstarch.

3. Adhesives

From plywood glue to Elmer’s Naturals Gluesticks to envelopes, corn is in all of them. Natural glues like Elmer’s makes are produced from corn flour, whereas plywood glue is made from corn oil and envelope glue is made from nitrocellulose glue.

Source: Thinkstock

4. Cosmetics

Looking at the ingredients of your makeup may reveal something called “zea mays.” Though it sounds a bit exotic, it’s actually the scientific name for corn. There are a number of ways corn is used in cosmetics: startch, oil, meal, powder, germ, extract, gluten protein, kernel, acid, glycerides, and potassium cornate. According to Cosmetics Info, they’re found in skin care, hair care, bath products, eye and facial makeup, lipsticks, and hair dyes.

Some examples of types of makeup containing corn:

  • Abrasives
  • Absorbents
  • Binders
  • Conditioners
  • Protectants
  • Cleansers
  • Powders
  • Water-based liquid makeup

5. Fresh Vegetables

What do carrots, celery, broccoli, and pre-cut potato products from your local supermarket all have in common? ICEIN, a corn-based “processing aid” made by Global Protein Products from zein, the principle protein in corn. It retards dehydration and oxydation, leaving the vegetables to appear fresher than they really are.

6. Wax paper and Waxed Cardboard

Similar to the coating on supermarket vegetables, wax paper and many wax-coated cardboard products are made from zein.

7. Bio-engineered Bone and Gum Tissue

Over the past few years, zein has gained popularity in the biomedical sphere as electrospun fibers become a scaffold of biocomposite for bone tissue engineering and treatment of periodontal disease.

Photo: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

8. Splenda and Equal

Thought you were escaping corn by not sweetening your sweets with corn syrup? Probably not. Both of these products contain maltodextrin, which is a corn product.

9. Hand Soap

Containing PEG-120 methyl glucose dioleate, citric acid, various colorants, and fragrances, all corn-derived additives — at least 25 percent of the ingredients in many hand soaps like Softsoap — contain corn.

10. Windex

This famous cleaner contains 2-Hexoxyethanol, acetic acid, ethanolamine, fragrance, and artificial colors — all of which are derived from corn.

11. Varnish

Ever wonder what gives varnish its luster? If you guessed it was a modified corn oil substance called alkyd, you’d be right!

Source: iStock

12. Toothpaste

Next time you brush your teeth, notice how much it doesn’t taste like soap. Between the flavoring and the sweetness that comes from sorbitol, a corn glucose derivative, you can beat plaque with sweet, minty freshness. If you don’t brush your teeth, you can always treat your out-of-control gum disease with that zein tissue.

13. Matches

Cornstarch is a common ingredient in the production of matchsticks, and sticks formed from paper rather than wood include corn products that increase rigidity.

14. Paving Bricks

Many paving bricks and other cement products are made with calcium stearate, a white, waxy powder used for waterproofing and to stop the bricks from forming puffy salt secretions.

15. Coated Aspirin

That sweet-ish coating on your pain killers is called cellulose acetate phthalate. Since that last word looks like something out of an H.P. Lovecraft novel, most people abbreviate it to CAP. This coating is responsible for the timed release of the medicine as well as easy gulping. CAP is actually almost completely resistant to stomach acid, but will break down in the intestines.

Source: Thinkstock

16. Tires, Jelly Beans, Licorice, and Molded Plastics

What do all of these have in common? Why, they’re a pain to pop out of the mold they were made in! Saving the day and making corn a seriously necessary component to your car (gas, spark plugs, tires), candy (H.F.C.S., flavoring, colorants), and molded plastics (many now made from corn processed into plastic instead of petroleum), powdered cornstarch is used to coat the molds so the products pop right out after they’re finished being molded.

17. Spark Plugs

So it turns out that when cornstarch is heated, some of its crystalline structures harden and become insulators that protect the ceramic in spark plugs from the high heat and acid solvents in your engine.

18. Diapers

Now that we’ve progressed past the 1980s when cellulose-based polymers were in vogue for diapers, we’ve turned to corn. Both normal and natural diapers use corn for its absorbent properties. Whereas natural diapers tend to use cornstarch to absorb your baby’s more unpleasant functions, conventional diapers are made from “the polymerization of acrylic acid blended with sodium hydroxide.” Acrylic acid is derived from ethylene, which is derived from corn.

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