For years, consumers have received mixed messages about the corn ethanol industry’s feedstock of choice. This misconception fuels debates and harsh opinions of using ethanol as an alternative fuel source. The root of the issue is that many consumers think that all corn growing in a field is the same. In fact, many varieties with specific purposes are grown to meet various food and production needs.

According to the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), approximately 12% of the U.S. corn crop ends up in foods that are consumed. What kinds of corn make up the remaining percent? To answer that question, here are the major categories… Let’s take a look:

Sweet corn

Types of Corn Sweet Corn

Sweet corn is often what people think when they think of corn. This variety of corn is what you’ll typically find in a grocery store or served at a barbeque. Sweet corn is harvested immaturely, before the normal conversion of sugar into starch can take place. Essentially, this means the kernels have more sugar content than starch content, allowing sweet corn to be considered a vegetable instead of a grain.

Popcorn

Types of Corn Popcorn

Another crowd favorite, popcorn is characterized by a tough outer shell encapsulating a small amount of soft starch content. This variety of corn is also primarily purposed for human consumption, but it is a relatively minor crop when compared to, say, dent corn.

According to The Popcorn Board, Americans average an annual consumption of 68 quarts of popcorn each year. (Consider that the next time you go to the movies!)

Flour corn

Types of Corn Flour Corn

Though “cornmeal” might come to one’s mind, this category of corn isn’t technically the same thing. One of the oldest varieties of corn, flour corn has soft kernels consisting of soft starch content. This corn is easy to grind and, thus, is used in baked goods and a slew of other foods—such as Jiffy corn muffin mix.

Dent corn

Types of Corn Dent Corn

Also referred to as “field corn,” dent corn is rightly named for the dimple that forms in the middle of the corn’s kernel. According to NCGA, dent corn accounts for approximately 99% of all corn production in the U.S.

You won’t find dent corn in the produce section, and you wouldn’t want to. It’s much starchier than sweet corn, which gives it a bland flavor and mealy texture. Instead, dent corn is used as livestock feed, for making natural corn syrup, or industrial products like clean-burning ethanol for fuel, beverages or sanitizers. Specifically, ethanol production plants employ fermentation and distillation processes to convert dent corn into ethanol. What makes dent corn particularly suitable for these processes is that much of the kernel is starch. This means dent corn is the most efficient raw material, one that is renewable and environmentally friendly

Flint corn

Types of Corn Flint Corn

Flint corn has a similar use to those of dent corn, but isn’t as popular (at least not in the U.S.). Named after its hard, glassy outer shell, the majority of the world’s flint corn is grown in Central and South America. This is largely because these areas use flint corn as a feed and food source. (The United States prefers the higher yielding dent corn primarily due to the little breeding work that has been performed on flint corn.)

Pod corn

Types of Corn Pod Corn

The final type of corn on our list is pod corn (sometimes referred to as Indian corn, such as in the United States). Pod corn is more ornamental than its aforementioned cousins, due to the uniquely elongated kernels and varied color patterns. Pod corn typically isn’t grown commercially, other than for ornamental purposes.

Though these are the six major categories of corn, there are dozens of other special-purpose corns. Waxy corn, for example, is used as animal fodder or for thickening food. Ultimately, corn isn’t corn isn’t corn. As a consumer it’s important to know that corn used for specific industrial purposes is different than that used for human food. We hope you enjoyed this overview of corn types. To learn more, please visit these sources:

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Becky Michael

I'm a Senior Scientist for Novozymes working in the Technical Services group for Biofuels. In my free time I love spending time with family and riding my Harley Fat Boy.

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