Your life is so corny

Stefanie Buhrman

You might be surprised to hear you are a greater consumer of corn than you think.

Sweet corn, the corn most commonly eaten by humans, accounts for less than one percent of the entire corn crop. So what’s done with the rest of the corn?

Food Products

In grocery items, corn presents itself in a variety of items including breakfast cereals, salad dressings, pie fillings and candy.

High-fructose corn syrup is used as a sweetener in soft drinks and canned juices. It is made from a process called wet-milling in which the corn is broken down into its component parts.

“The uses are invisible to most,” said Larry Johnson, director of the Center for Crop Utilization Research at Iowa State. “High-fructose syrup is a major amount of corn. It’s somewhere around 10 percent [of the crop].”

Roger Elmore, professor of agronomy and ISU Extension corn specialist, said high-fructose corn syrup can make corn chips blue, white, red or yellow.

Corn is not just used as a flavor agent to make chips and cereals, though – it is also used in more subtle ways.

“Starch is another main use,” Johnson said. “It’s used as thickeners in foods. It’s in gummy bears.”

Cornstarch is also present in other foods such as pudding, chewing gums, low-calorie sweeteners and brewed beverages.

Nonfood Items

“Two-thirds of starch from corn ends up in non-food products,” Johnson said, including adhesives, candles, insecticides, leather products, plastic molding and paper products.

“It’s used in paper coatings to make paper white,” Johnson said. “It’s used in charcoal briquettes.”

A mixture of charcoal dust and corn starch go into some people’s favorite way of cooking on the grill.

“Corn is the cheapest source of energy,” Johnson said.

Companies are making carpeting, different forms of plastics, fabrics and non-corrosive de-icers from the vegetable.

More items with corn in them include some powdered cosmetics, explosives, tobacco products and another commonly known – ethanol.

“Corn is used for two fuels: ethanol for cars and biodiesel for trucks,” Johnson said. “The issue with corn is with fuel prices – are we in a dilemma of food versus fuel? I disagree. Corn can supply food and fuel.”

The Future

With concern over global climate change and greenhouse gases growing, many may wonder if corn can have any impact on the situation. Pat Schnable, director of the Center for Plant Genomics at Iowa State, hopes it can.

Schnable hopes through experimentation with the stalk of the corn plant, the lab can make a breakthrough.

“We are trying to make the cell wall harder for microbes to digest,” Schnable said.

Slowing down microbes’ digestion would increase the amount of organic matter in soil and bring down the amount of greenhouse gases in the air while keeping the corn kernels unchanged and completely edible.

With the possibility of a government-imposed emissions cap on power companies and the possibilities to be gleaned from a new emission-reducing crop, some companies may start to pay farmers to use their corn.

Along with helping the environment, corn might also be a part of new health care options.

Johnson said certain enzymes have been injected into some corn strands that could help patients with cystic fibrosis who lack these enzymes. While not yet available, there is a bit of controversy tagged to it because the enzymes come from dogs.

With all its possible uses, corn is a vital part of everyday society.

“At this point, we know enough about the genome,” Schnable said. “We could make it do anything we wanted it to.”

Besides the ever-delicious sweet corn, the corn plant has definitely made its impact in the world.

“It’s pretty universal,” Elmore said. “It’s grown all over. It started in the Western Hemisphere and it’s made its way around the world twice.”