What’s Dent Corn and What Is it Used For?
The United States’ most important crop, corn, is grown on a massive scale. The size of the crop influences environmental health, the country’s food system and diet and what fuels the nation’s automobiles. This series explores corn’s role in contributing to factory farmed meat and obesity, how little of the crop gets directly eaten by people and how corn got so big in the US.
Corn is used for more things than you probably think. As the dominant agriculture commodity in the US, corn has found its way into a large part of American life, but this comes with costs. Over a third of calories in an American diet now consist of grains and sweeteners, and there are myriad corn-based products in the market that fall into one or both of those categories. Corn is also a significant component of feed for animals raised on factory farms.
But it’s not just our public health that is impacted by corn. Increased corn acreage can impact ecologically sensitive areas like grasslands and riparian buffers. These areas can slow nutrient runoff and provide habitat for animals. Without these buffers, nutrients can enter water bodies creating toxic algal blooms and dead zones. Corn monocrops can also affect biodiversity through habitat loss and/or pesticide use can harm local populations of insects and plants. And the vast majority of industrial corn is now of several GMO varieties.
Sweet Corn vs. Dent Corn: What’s the Difference?
Sweet corn, like the kind you purchase at a farm stand or in a store, may be the first thing to come to mind when someone mentions corn, but less than 1 percent of the grain crop grown in the US is sweet. Sweet corn varieties have the ability to stay "sweet" longer than most other varieties of corn that convert the "sweetness" in to starch more rapidly. As for popcorn, that other favorite type of corn? It’s an even smaller part – about 200 thousand acres out of the 90 million acres of corn planted – of the overall corn harvest.
Most of the corn grown in the US is yellow dent corn, named for the dimple-like dents on the top of the corn kernels when ready for harvest. By the time we see this type of corn, though, it’s in the form of tortilla chips, corn flakes, corn oil or HFCS, or converted into the "invisible corn" used for livestock feed that ends up on our plates in the form of steaks or pork chops.
High Fructose Corn Syrup
Many processed products on grocery store shelves contain corn sweeteners. To enhance sweetness, corn syrup or starch (made from dent corn) is converted to HFCS that can be used in place of sugar. HFCS can be found in ketchup, breakfast cereals, salad dressings, juice, sodas and many, many other processed products. In 2013, the USDA calculated that there were 58 pounds of corn sweetener available in the market for each person to consume. While that may sound like a lot, it is actually down from over 83 pounds per person in 1999, which is thought to be a result of consumers switching to diet soda and bottled water.
Sweeteners made with corn, like high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and other corn-based junk food and soft drinks available on American grocery shelves are linked to greater incidence of obesity. Sugary drinks lack nutritional qualities that provide a sense of "fullness" when consumed than solid food with the same amount of calories. The World Health Organization recommends that less than 10 percent of calories should come from simple sugars, like HFCS.
How Corn Is Processed
To create many corn products and derivatives like ethanol, the corn must be processed in one of two ways: wet or dry milling.
Wet milling, as its name implies, uses water and a light dose of hydrochloric acid to help break the kernels into its components. Part of the seed is then harvested to further process into corn oil. The high protein component is turned into feed or meal for animals. The starch can be used as corn starch or further refined into HFCS, sugars like glucose and dextrose or into ethanol for alcohol or renewable fuel requirements. Corn starch is also used in cosmetics, medicines and biodegradable packaging.
Dry milling is a more traditional method of corn processing, where the kernels are ground into a powder. Corn ethanol production facilities usually use this method to produce the feedstock for the fermentation process. Corn kernels can be ground for producing cereal flakes, flour, grits, meal and brewers’ grits used in beer production.
To produce many traditional corn foods, the corn kernels are subjected to the nixtamalization process, a traditional method of processing corn originally developed by the Aztecs and the Maya, where the grain is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, often consisting of lime (calcium hydroxide). This process increases nutrition, improves flavor and produces the corn product hominy. Further processing results in hominy grits, masa flour, tortillas, tortilla chips and a number of other products.