There's A Huge Difference Between The Corn We Eat vs. What Cows Eat

Don't even try to eat field corn, it'll hurt your teeth.
07/20/2017 06:00am ET

The United States grows over 90 million acres of corn a year, and 99 percent of it is not the kind that humans eat on the cob.

That’s right, corn is not just corn ― there are many different types. The kind people eat on the cob (typically in the summertime) is known as sweet corn (Zea mays convar. saccharata var. rugosa), and it makes up only one percent of the corn grown in the U.S. each year. Sweet corn is harvested during the summer months when the tops of the husks start to turn brown. It’s then used to make some of the best summer dishes.

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This is sweet corn. The kernels are juicy and sweet -- that's how it got its name.

The other 99 percent of corn that dominates our American farms is known as field corn (Zea mays indentata). Field corn, also called cow corn (because it’s used to make cow feed), is taller than sweet corn and has thicker leaves. It stays in the fields until the kernels are dry, mostly because it’s easier to process that way.

Jim Young / Reuters
This is field corn. It sits on the stalk longer to let the kernels dry out.

Field corn is used to make food products like cornmeal, corn chips and corn syrup, but it’s primarily grown for animal feed. In fact, field corn makes up 95 percent of the grain in animal feed. Other applications for field corn are non-food related, such as making ethanol and polymers.

Whatever you do, don’t try to dig your teeth into a cob of field corn. No matter how much butter you slather on it, the high-starch and low-sugar content means it’ll never taste good.

And if you’re looking for popcorn, that’s a whole different kind of corn, too. This kind of corn is simply called popcorn (Zea mays everta), and it makes up less than one percent of the amount of corn grown in the states.

Corn is not just corn.

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