The corn in the fields may be "as high as an elephant's eye," but that doesn't mean you should eat it.

By Patricia S York
April 21, 2019
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Credit: Peter bowman/EyeEm/Getty Images

Corn is often referred to as "yellow gold" because it is used to make so many products and byproducts that we use every day - from grocery store items (sweeteners, cereals, taco shells) to industrial products (pharmaceuticals, fuel ethanol, recyclable plastics), to animal feed (grain and feed corn for cattle, swine, poultry and fish), corn is used in a multitude of ways. Every year farmers in the United States produce over 14 billion bushels of corn; the diversity in the types of corn grown, however, has decreased. Large corn farmers are producing what is often called cow corn, the corn needed for feed, fuel, and food products, while the smaller farmers and home gardeners grow the variety of corn we eat, known as sweet corn. You thought all corn was the same? Read on and learn the difference between cow corn and sweet corn.

When looking at a fresh ear of cow corn, also known as dent corn or field corn, it is easy to identify – there is a dent, or dimple, in the crown of each individual corn kernel. Cow corn has a high starch and low sugar content, which means it's not sweet and juicy like the corn you buy to eat from your grocery store or farmers market. Because it's not meant to be eaten fresh, farmers allow cow corn to dry on the stalks in the field before harvesting. Most cow corn grown in the U.S. winds up as animal feed, although some varieties of dent corn are used as a grain in products like chips, cornmeal, and masa. This type corn is also used to make bourbon and moonshine. The majority of corn grown in the U.S. is yellow dent corn, though you may also find dent corn in a wide variety of colors.

The variety of corn we enjoy eating is called sweet corn, which does not grow nearly as tall as field corn (another identifiable difference). Sweet corn has a higher sugar content than cow corn, and is picked while immature, before the sugar has a chance to turn into starch. Fresh, sweet corn is juicy; the juice, or "milk," is how you get the creaminess of creamed corn.

There are several varieties of sweet corn, with Silver Queen being one of the most popular in the South. All sweet corn can be found in white, yellow, and bicolored varieties. When purchasing fresh sweet corn at the store or farmers' market, look forears with brown silks at the top; that is a sign that the ear was picked when the kernels inside were as developed as they were going to get. Make sure the leaves that wrap the ear still look fresh and green (a little bit of brown around the outside edges is fine).

WATCH: Creamed Corn

There are other types of corn, including flint, popcorn, and flour, but industrial farming has led to a narrower selection, with only a few types of corn being grown by large farmers. Heirloom corn refers to corn that's not mass produced and tends to be varieties that have all but disappeared. Fortunately, there are farmers working to bring back heirloom varieties of corn.