COLUMBUS, Ohio — In 2014, farmers across the United States harvested 14.2 billion bushels of corn from 83.1 million acres, for a total value of $51.9 billion.
Everything about corn is big in the United States. Corn is the No. 1 crop grown in the country, while America leads the world in production and consumption of this vital grain, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Grown by Native Americans well before the arrival of Europeans, corn has been part of the agricultural landscape, food traditions and culture of what is now the United States for millennia.
Despite its enormous influence and popularity, there are many things you may not know about corn — and others you think you know but are, in fact, incorrect. Here are some facts and myths about the king of U.S. crops that will boost your corn IQ:
• Not all corn is the same: We typically speak about corn in general terms as if it were just one crop. However, there are many types of corn, grown for different uses and featuring different colors. If you try munching on field corn, you will be disappointed: It’s been bred to be high in starch content and won’t be sweet or soft. Sweet corn, on the other hand, has a much higher sugar content, has more polysaccharides that make kernels creamy and is softer because it’s harvested early — when the kernels are still immature.
There are six major types of corn: dent (most field corn grown in the United States today), flint (the colorful varieties also known as Indian corn), pod (a wild type from which corn as we know it today originated), sweet (the type eaten on the cob), flour (composed largely of soft starch and easy to grind) and popcorn (which has a hard moisture-sealed hull and a dense starchy interior that puffs when heated).
• Corn is actually a really tall grass: All corn known to humankind today originated some 10,000 years in Mexico from a single-stalked, grassy plant called teosinte, meaning “grain of the gods.” A teosinte ear is only 2 to 3 inches long with five to 12 kernels — compared to corn’s 12-inch ear that boasts 500 or more kernels. Early Mexican farmers domesticated teosinte and increased its yield and grain quality by selectively breeding for desirable traits.
• Most corn produced in the United States is not eaten by people: The largest amount of corn produced by U.S. farmers (46.4 percent) is used as feed for animals. Another 30.5 percent is converted to ethanol, and 12.9 is exported. The rest is turned into sweeteners (5.7 percent), starch (1.8 percent) and alcoholic beverages (1 percent). Only 1.5 percent is used to make cereal and other foods. These percentages are based on USDA data for the 2014 harvest.
• You may be wearing corn or walking or driving on it: Corn as a raw material is used to make an astonishing number of everyday products, including textiles, car tires, carpeting, plastics, paints, candles, drywall, soap and sandpaper.
• Corn is not very nutritious. Or is it? There are some nutritional stigmas attached to corn because of its high starch content (in the case of field corn) and its sugar content (in the case of sweet corn). However, corn provides important nutrients as part of a varied diet. Sweet corn, classified as a vegetable by USDA, is a good source of fiber, folate, thiamin and phosphorus.
Additionally, yellow corn offers vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene. Blue, purple, red and other types of colorful Indian corn are also high in anthocyanins — the nutrients that provide such deep colors and that have the potential to help prevent cancer and other diseases.
• Corn or maize? While the United States and a few other English-speaking countries use the word “corn” (from the Proto-Germanic kurnam, meaning “small seed”), the rest of the world refers to this crop as “maize” or maíz — which comes from the Taíno (a Caribbean indigenous culture) word mahiz.