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Not just something to eat

September 4, 2011
By GLYNIS VALENTI - Staff Writer ( , Times Leader

Corn is everywhere. Really-everywhere. It can be traced back over the past 10,000 years throughout North, South and Central America, and explorers took it back to Europe and beyond during the 15th and 16th centuries. Aside from its global pervasiveness though, corn is IN everything from ketchup to car upholstery, and Ohio research and development firms are part of the forefront in biotechnology finding even more uses for the grain.

As mentioned, prehistoric remains in southern Mexico and northern Central America indicate that corn (or maize as it's known throughout most of the world) was an early food source. It was part of the diets and religions in the Mayan and Aztec cultures and spread south to the Incans and north to the Native Americans. Today, the United States is by far the largest corn producer in the world, 333 million metric tons-or around 734.14 billion pounds-nearly double China's production. Overall more corn is produced in the world than rice or wheat. In the United States, most is grown in Iowa, Illinois and other Midwestern states because of the necessary heat and rainfall.

There are basically five types of corn. Sweet corn is an ancient natural mutation of field corn where early corn produces and holds sugar. Flint corn is a hard-kernel corn used for high quality cornmeal, livestock feed and the decorative Indian corn. Dent corn is one of the most commonly grown in the states and produces more industrial scale products like oils, silage, flour, bio-fuels and feed. It has hard kernels with soft tops that "dent" as the corn dries. Popcorn has a high starch content that causes the kernel to burst when heated and is one of the earliest corns known. Flour corn has soft starch kernels with thin coats and is used primarily for producing corn flour.

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Corn is all-American. Well, it originated in the southern end of North America. Scientists speculate that humans realized early on that the kernels popped in heat and may even be how humans “discovered” this food source.

Surprisingly, only about one-fortieth, or 8.325 million tons, is sweet corn grown for human consumption. What happens to all the rest of it? Approximately 40 percent, 130 million tons, is grown for ethanol. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, corn-based ethanol is biodegradable, emits about 20 percent less greenhouse gas than gasoline and is more efficient and environmentally friendly than other gasoline additives. By-products of the milling process (corn to ethanol) include livestock feed, corn oil, cornstarch, carbon dioxide (for carbonated drinks) and a liquid, environmentally friendly alternative to road salt in the winter. Recently, however, environmentalists have taken a closer look at ethanol production in carbon footprint terms, and it isn't promising: pesticides, runoff, irrigation, running large agricultural equipment, transportation to refineries and the energy used to process corn into alcohol may outweigh the bio-fuel benefits.

Most of the remaining 200 million-odd tons are used for livestock feed and silage in the states and for export. Cattle, pigs and poultry all feast on corn products, and it's also widely used in dog food.

Whether made from kernels, cobs or starch, there is a long list of products in which corn plays a part. In food products, besides the obvious sweet corn, popcorn, cornstarch, oil, chips, tortillas and grits/polenta/mush, corn or corn products can be found in baby foods, breakfast cereals, baking mixes, bread, pie fillings, gravies, salad dressings, mayonnaise, chewing gum, cheese spreads, puddings, frostings, jams, instant tea, peanut butter, candy, instant breakfasts, mustards, chocolate drinks and canned vegetables.

Not-so-tasty products include floor wax, adhesives, wallpaper paste, cosmetics, dyes, inks, linoleum, shoe polish, glue, crayons, insecticides, plywood, sandpaper, dry cell batteries, fireworks, caulk, ceiling tiles and wall board. The pharmaceutical industry uses corn derivatives in antibiotics, aspirin, yeast cultures, surgical dressings and disinfectants.

Ohio voters approved an initiative in 2005 called the Third Frontier Project. Part of this program has been exploring and funding research projects and companies that combine Ohio's agricultural industry with biotechnology and reduce dependence on petroleum. One of the results is a plastic shrink-wrap bottle label made from a corn polymer produced by Plastic Suppliers in Columbus. The company has also developed IngeoTM fiber, the world's first man-made fiber from 100 percent renewable resources, another corn polymer, now used in rugs and textiles that used to be made from nylons and polyesters. Other companies are beginning to produce rubber tires, car parts, computer parts and fabrics for car seats from organic, homegrown materials like corn and soybeans.

Other parts of the Midwest are waiting for final figures on corn harvests and futures, and have seen diminishing yields because of both floods and drought. Flooding in the upper Midwest created a shorter growing season then ruined the crops. Drought in the southern states has kept farmers from planting and destroyed crops they were able to get in. A rumored shortage of corn is creating a shortage of livestock food, pushing prices up for feed and hay for already desperate, drought-stricken ranchers. Should the shortage materialize at the end of harvest, it will affect food prices for humans as well since corn is utilized throughout the industry.

According to Steve Schumacher of the Ohio State University Extension Office in St. Clairsville, corn production in the immediate counties is on a smaller, more local scale than that in western Ohio to Nebraska. "Most of the corn is field corn grown to produce silage, feed for livestock," he said. "I hear the sweet corn has been good this year, though. People should get out to the farm markets and get it fresh while it's available."

Jerry Ebbert, owner of Ebbert's Farm Market, can attest to that. He said that, while they got a late start planting this year because of the spring rains, the crop has turned out well. He has 120 cornfields outside of Bethesda and grows 16 varieties, all hand-planted and picked. He noted that each stalk really only produces one ear suitable for eating. It holds most of the sugar, and the other ears on the stalk usually succumb to crows, raccoons or bugs. Their last planting was around July 4, and final harvest will probably be around early October.

When purchasing sweet corn look for fresh, green husks and plump, milky kernels with no bugs. Old corn will have a dry look with indentations in the kernels. The Ohio State University Extension recommends dropping husked and cleaned corn on the cob into boiling water seasoned with a tablespoon each of sugar and lemon juice. Boil for two minutes, turn off the heat and let stand for 10 minutes.

Nutritionally, according to an online calorie counter, corn on the cob (without butter) is about 74 percent water and averages about 44 calories with .8 grams of fat, 7.5 grams of carbohydrates and 1.5 grams of protein. A half cup serving of unsalted cooked sweet yellow corn is about 89 calories with 1 gram of fat, 20.6 grams of carbs and 2.7 grams of protein. There are also small amounts of Vitamin A, Vitamin C and iron. One pat of salted butter will add 36 calories and 4.1 grams of fat. It's a good "filler" vegetable that isn't overpowering. Add it to pasta salads, salsas, chutneys, soups, chowders, omelets, frittatas, tacos and Mexican dips for texture and to balance strong flavors.

Enjoying a cob of white and yellow kernels picked fresh by a local farmer that morning, slathered with butter and a shake of sea salt, brings to mind corn's part in another everyday food trend. In the early 1800s in New York City, "hot-corn girls" walked around selling hot corn on the cob. This was the first time food was sold on the streets, so today's hot dog, pretzel and sausage sandwich carts all originated with corn.



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