The curious case of corn

Corn was long the No. 1 crop grown in America. And it’s not because we ate so much corn-on-the-cob. Rather, corn goes into many different types of products. Manufacturers use it to make the low-cost sweetener high-fructose corn syrup. They put it in cosmetics, glue, and shoe polish. And they even put it in our gas tanks as ethanol (thanks to government mandates).

Yes, corn is a remarkably used–and abused–commodity in the 21st century.

Even when we eat it naturally, as “corn on the cob,” it’s not very natural anymore. This corn is nutritionally deprived. Plus, if you bought it at your regular grocery store, chances are it’s been genetically altered. In fact, almost 90 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. today is genetically modified.

But corn wasn’t always such an abused vegetable, as pointed out in a recent New York Times article. It was once an extremely important natural food source in America. Indeed, the quintessentially American food.

The origins of corn date back thousands of years. It actually derives from a wild grass called teosinte that grew in Mesoamerica (what is today’s Mexico and Central America).

Like a wild grass, teosinte has short spikes instead of “ears.” Each spike contains only about 5 to 12 kernels. The shells surrounding the kernels are so hard and thick, you have to crack them like a nut to open them.

The dry kernels contain mainly starch, a little sugar, and some protein. Teosinte actually has 10 times more protein than the corn we eat today.

Plant geneticists now think that teosinte underwent several spontaneous mutations hundreds of years ago. Eventually, the spikes evolved into a cob with kernels of many different colors.

Native Americans, living in Mesoamerica began to cultivate this grain as a crop. And it became the mainstay of rapidly growing populations in the form of maize. 

By the 1400s, people living throughout Mexico based their diets on corn. And soon, corn spread throughout the Americas. Eventually, European colonists encountered “Indian corn” when they began settling in New England and Virginia in the early 1600s. They also used cobs to make pipes for smoking tobacco, another Native American plant. They even used cobs for early bathroom sanitation.

But this “Indian corn” did not closely resemble what we eat today.

In the mid-1600s, John Winthrop Jr., governor of the colony of Connecticut wrote about Indian corn. He said Native Americans grew “corne with great variety of colours.” He observed “red, yellow, blew, olive colour, and greenish, and some very black and some of intermediate degrees.”

We now know that Indian corn was colorful because it contained many important nutrients, such as anthocyanins and carotenoids. These natural pigments demonstrate potential to fight cancer, control inflammation, lower cholesterol,  and reduce blood pressure. They also appear to protect the aging brain. And even reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Early European colonists knew only this corn. And they were content with this colorful variety until the summer of 1779. That year, the colonists discovered something tastier for their European palates. They discovered a yellow variety of corn, with sweeter and more tender kernels.

This sweet, yellow corn came to light during the Revolutionary War when General George Washington fought against Iroquois tribes. During this campaign, colonial soldiers came across a field of unusually sweet yellow corn. Lieutenant Richard Bagnal took some seeds home to grow. And to share with others. This variety became the “old-fashioned” yellow corn that was thence cultivated in the new nation.

Eventually, in the 1830s another gentleman farmer in Connecticut bred an even sweeter, whiter variety of corn. He said he wanted to get rid of the “awful” yellowness of the corn. This meant he got rid of most of the nutrients too.

But even that corn wasn’t sweet enough.

Beginning in the 1920s, plant geneticists exposed corn seeds to radiation to learn more about the normal arrangement of plant genes. They mutated seeds by exposing them to x-rays, cobalt radiation, and toxic compounds. They also exposed them to genotoxins that damage DNA. Today, the government considers these genotoxins carcinogenic.

In the 1940s, scientists graduated to blasts of atomic radiation. It was the Nuclear Age, after all. Scientists stored these irradiated kernels in a seed bank. And made them available for research.

In 1959, a geneticist named John Laughnan began to study a handful of “mutant,” irradiated kernels. He put a few in his mouth. And he gave them a “glowing” recommendation.

Actually, the corn was no longer radioactive. But he loved their intense sweetness. Lab tests showed that they were up to 10 times sweeter than ordinary sweet corn. Apparently, atomic radiation turned on the corn gene that makes sugar. Or perhaps it simply poisoned the other genes that make the nutrients in corn.

This mutant corn quickly revolutionized the corn industry. Laughnan gave up science. And quickly became a business entrepreneur. He developed commercial varieties of “super-sweet” corn. And began selling his first hybrids in 1961.

And voila.

This became the first genetically modified food to enter the U.S. food supply. Few people realize this is actually how genetically modified crops first entered the food supply in this country.

And it didn’t take long for the super-sweet GM corn to overtake the entire country. Within one generation, these new extra super-sweet varieties outsold even old-fashioned sweet corn in the marketplace.

And today, most of the fresh corn available in our food supply is the super-sweet variety. You can trace all these newer varieties back to the radiation experiments in the 1940s.

The kernels are either white, pale yellow, or a combination of the two. The sweetest varieties approach 40 percent sugar, bringing new meaning to the term “candy corn.” Although, ironically even candy corn has deep yellow, red, and even black coloration.

Very few farmers in the United States still grow multicolored “Indian corn.” And it’s generally sold as a seasonal decoration. And not consumed as a food.

So when you shop for some corn-on-the cob this summer, look for organic varieties with the deepest color. These will be the most nutritious. In fact, corn with deep yellow kernels has nearly 60 times more carotenoids than white corn. Plus, they can’t be genetically modified if they’re labeled organic.

To regain the lost anthocyanins and carotenoids, you can also use blue, red, or purple cornmeal. You can find this in some supermarkets. And on the internet. Some manufacturers are now even making snack foods with blue, red or purple cornmeal.

Throughout the rest of the week, I’ll take a look at some of the other vegetables served at your table in the summer time. Some, like corn, have lost their nutrient value over time. But others have persisted as powerful nutrient sources into our modern era of agriculture. I’ll tell you which ones still pack a solid nutritional punch.


1. “Breeding the nutrition out of our food,” New York Times, (, May 25, 2013