Look at the list of ingredients on the back of any food that comes packaged in plastic or a box at your local supermarket, and you’re sure to see a few names you don’t recognize. But, amongst the scientific-this and alpha-lipoic-that, one word is sure to jump out at you time and time again: corn.
Corn is in chicken nuggets, Coca Cola, yogurt, and soup—it’s absolutely everywhere. And those are just the products that list corn, cornstarch, high-fructose corn syrup, or another corn-derivative with corn in its name. Many other substances like vitamin D, citric acid, sorbitol, dextrose, and maltodextrin can all be derived from corn too—and frequently are. Just look at the list of foods people with a corn allergy have to be careful with; it’s basically every product in the grocery store.
It’s no understatement to say that you can eat an entire meal that’s made with huge amounts of corn, without seeing a single kernel on your plate. So, what’s going on, and why is corn in so many non-corn products?
A Brief History of Corn
Modern corn has developed a long way from its prehistoric Central American roots. It’s gone from a small grass called Teosinte into an agricultural monster that’s colonized much of the Mid-West. What once was a wild plant that had perhaps a dozen kernels and reproduced naturally is now a food crop with around 800 kernels per ear that needs to be sowed by humans to survive.
Corn or maize was once at the core of the Native American diet. Europeans only encountered it in the 1490s when Christopher Columbus went off on his voyage of “discovery.” The subsequent waves of settlers, however, fast took to the “new” grain since it was so prolific and cheap to produce. It was mainly eaten by the poor until the 1800s when the industrial revolution changed everything. Iron plows, the rails system, and canneries meant corn could be produced at scale. It started to spread everywhere, and production ramped up.
By the 1930s, scientists were producing hybrid strains of corn that were even more prolific and could be grown closer together than ever before. These produced more grain that could be sold from less land. As tractors and industrial fertilizers became available, yields went yet higher.
And then, in the 1950s, high-fructose corn syrup was invented. And with it, the American diet changed. Now, corn wasn’t just corn—it could be sugar and starch and lots of other things besides. Corn could be added to foods (or replace existing ingredients in them) that show no resemblance to it. Corn in soda? Why ever not.
Since then, corn has only become more dominant. Genetic modification, government support, and import tariffs have all helped cement corn’s central place in the American food system.
This Corn Ain’t Sweet
When you think of corn, you probably imagine a bright yellow ear of sweetcorn. Delicious barbecued and slathered in butter. That’s not the corn that’s in almost everything. Sweetcorn accounts for less than 1% of the corn grown in America.
Instead, most American farms grow field or dent corn. It’s got a higher starch and lower sugar content, so it’s not tasty straight off the stalk. It needs to be processed into cornmeal or any of the other corn-derivatives before we can eat it. Or it can be fed to animals, which is what happens to most of it, or converted into ethanol for use as grain alcohol or biofuel.
Yes, even American cows, pigs, and chickens subsist primarily on a diet of corn.
The Versatile Grain
Corn’s popularity stems from two things: how much of it can be produced and how flexibly it can be processed.
The reason corn is in toothpaste is that sorbitol and Xanthan gum can more easily and cheaply be produced from it than other sources. High-fructose corn syrup is cheaper than cane sugar, so of course, it’s in Coke. Sure, you can make ethanol from wheat, but it’s significantly pricier, and you get more or less the same end product. It’s pure economics.
Corn isn’t the only crop that’s more ubiquitous than you’d think. Soybeans have undergone a similar industrialized rise. In many of the same products that use corn syrup or starch, you’ll find soy proteins and oils. Those chicken nuggets do contain (corn-fed) chicken—but much of the rest comes from corn and soy.
So, there you have it. The American agricultural food system’s ability to grow more bushels of corn more cheaply than anything else and the food processing industry’s ability to turn it into almost anything you can imagine is why that chicken nugget you’re chomping down on has so much corn.