planting and growing corn for nutrition

field corn growing

I suspect we don't think of corn as a useful grain because we're all so accustomed to avoiding it on processed food labels: HFCS, modified corn starch, corn oil. Or we're accustomed to thinking of it as that cheap subsidized stuff they feed to cows and chickens instead of pasture to make nutritionally-deficient CAFO meat, eggs and dairy. And we know that the majority of the corn crop in this country is GMO. In short, we tend to think of corn as "bad stuff" except for a few ears of sweet corn in summer.

But corn can be a great addition to the diet, unless you are allergic or eat grain-free. Corn has a rather high protein content for a grain (14% on a dry grain basis). And while rarely included in the lists, it is a gluten-free grain.

Corn is often ignored by gardeners, though some of us grow a small patch of sweet corn for summer enjoyment. But corn is the only grain that it's reasonable to grow and process on a small-scale. It can be harvested, husked and shelled with hand tools; no combines required. Corn is the only grain you can reasonably be self-sufficient in, something particularly worth considering if you're a gardener with celiac or NCGS.

But in order for corn to become a useful part of the diet, we have to learn how to use it properly. Native Americans didn't process it into HFCS; settlers didn't bake with modified corn starch; the colonists didn't press it into corn oil. We need to learn how to make REAL cornbread (which has no wheat flour), sweet breads, polenta, johnnycake, sponge cake, parched corn, hominy, tortillas, and corn gravy. All are possible if we learn how to use the appropriate types of corn.

field corn: flint, flour and dent types

I learned most of what I know about corn from Carol Deppe's book The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times, which is about practically raising as many of your own calories as you can through the good and the bad. In my favorite gardening book, Carol shares:

  1. an incredible wealth of experience largely focused on corn, beans, potatoes, squash and ducks
  2. an entirely new way of thinking about food production through the worst nature can throw at the gardener
  3. practical recipes for daily cooking with these staples including descriptions of which varieties are best for different dishes

With corn, part of the problem is that while we do have many pioneer-era recipes, we don't know what kind of corn they used; each recipe assumes the local corn. But different corn types have very different characteristics.

A corn kernel contains four main parts: the germ (the embryo of the seed), the endosperm (the food for the embryo), the seed coat (which consists of two parts, the pericarp and the aleurone) and the tip cap (the bit which connects to the husk).

Corn is distinguished primarily by it's endosperm, which can be mostly hard (flint corn, which includes sweet corn and popcorn), mostly soft (flour corn) or a mix in which the floury part shrinks more as it dries, resulting in a dented kernel (dent corn).

corn types and corn kernel anatomy
Cross Sections of Basic Corn Types from Maize, Masa, and Mexican Mythos - Making Traditional Corn Tortillas from Whole Corn by Homescale. Used by Permission.

Traditionally, Native Americans in the northeast grew flint corns, those in the southwest grew flour corns, and breeding of the two types produced dent corn which filled the midwest. Unfortunately, most dent corn grown today is GMO though heirloom varieties are available if you need a high yield; reports are that some are quite tasty.

whole grain yellow corn meal nutrition facts

a-maize-ing nutrition facts

OK, the nutrition facts aren't amazing at all; I just couldn't resist the pun.

I put together the graphic to the right showing the nutritional facts for 100 grams yellow whole-grain cornmeal from the USDA database; this most likely was calculated from a dent corn and since it's for a whole-grain version, should include the seed coat (bran) and germ. This is just under a cup of corn meal.

As with all grains, corn is primarily carbohydrate. As such, it's nutritional use in the diet is to provide cheap calories. While we often disparage carby foods as being mostly empty calories, for those whom are poor, cheap calories is an important consideration. IMO, grain also fills a culinary niche as a comfort food. It is nice to have sandwiches in your life now and then, to eat cake, or to add crackers to soup, and so on. My recommended diet for everyone can be summarized as half your food as nonstarchy vegetables and a quarter of your food as protein, both dressed with healthy fat, so I definitely believe if you choose corn as your staple grain, you limit it's use. As a diabetic who must limit carbohydrate, I do not eat much grain, but I do enjoy it occasionally.

Corn's protein content is limited by it's low lysine content, lysine being one of the essential amino acids, which is why it's often recommended to eat with beans to make a more complete protein. Preliminary research (PDF from New Mexico State University) indicates that flour corns may have higher levels of the amino acids lysine and tryptophan. Since lysine is the limiting amino acid in corn, this boosts the available protein.

Most of corn's fat is found in the germ and is primarily polyunsaturated fat (PUFA). This is why most commercial cornmeal does not include the germ, because PUFAs go rancid easily. Of course, freshly ground corn would not be rancid, but PUFAs are still unhealthy fats; luckily the dose is relatively small with whole corn.

Moving along to the micronutrients, the small vitamin A content is not real, yellow corn contains carotenes, which don't actually provide much vitamin A activity unless you are a ruminant, though carotenes themselves are useful antioxidants. Other corn colors provide different useful flavanoids.

Of the B vitamins, most famously, a corn-based diet can cause pellagra, because the niacin is not bioavailable. The best way to avoid this is not eat a corn-based diet. Seriously, while I've gotten very enthusiastic about corn lately, at most, it's going to be 5-10% of my diet.

Of the rest of the vitamins, corn has no vitamins C, D or K and little E.

Just going on the nutritional facts, corn looks mineral-rich, with decent amounts of copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, selenium and zinc. Unfortunately, corn has 1-2% phytic acid on a dry weight basis. Phytic acid is an anti-nutrient that binds minerals, preventing their absorption. The traditional ways to minimize phytic acid are summarized by "Price People" as including soaking, sprouting and souring. Soaking grains, nuts and legumes in acidified water activates the grain's own phytase enzyme to break down phytic acid. Sprouting changes many of the nutritional factors as well as reducing phytates, making the grain more like a vegetable than a grain. The activity of yeasts and bacteria in fermentation breaks down phytic acid, but sourdough is particularly useful with a rye-based starter since it provides phytase lacking in corn.

Since corn doesn't have much phytase, soaking would not be useful unless you added some wheat or rye to the water to provide phytase. I've never heard of anyone sprouting or making sourdough with corn, so in considering what to do about it, I turned to Amanda Rose, author of the brilliant phytic acid white paper, which I love because it's full of both a lot of science as well as practical methods for treating grains, nuts and legumes. Amanda is THE source on reducing phytic acid, even the "Price People" follow her lead and I highly recommend the white paper. Her article Corn & phytates: To soak or not to soak? basically boils down to if you're not going to soak with wheat or rye, eat corn along with a vitamin C rich food and some meat to improve mineral absorption and just don't eat gobs of corn.

The other problematic anti-nutrient in corn is it's zein, which is a lectin. Lectins are a class of proteins present in high levels in grains, nuts and legumes that are "sticky". Lectins bind to the villi of the GI tract, thus causing leaky gut and all it's associated autoimmune ills; there is also some evidence that lectins cause leptin resistance, which precedes insulin resistance and thus leads to T2 diabetes. Again, soaking, sprouting and souring are the primary methods of reducing lectin content in foods, and it appears that pressure cooking largely eliminates it, but the simplest method is to limit intake.

If corn is actually a staple in your diet, I would highly recommend nixtamalization, a traditional method of boiling corn with lime or wood ash that removes most of the seed coat. This increase the bioavailability of protein, calcium, iron and B12 and reduces phytic acid content by about half. While I can't find evidence that it reduces lectin, given that several cultures have depended on nixtamalized corn without developing the diseases of civilization, I suspect it does.

cooking characteristics of corn

In considering methods of cooking corn, I turn again to Carol Deppe's book The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times. Because Carol spent over a decade experimenting with cooking hundreds of varieties of corn, we can benefit from her experience.

flint corn
Due to it's hard endosperm, no matter how well you grind it, it grinds to a gritty consistency. It cooks best by boiling, thus is well-suited to use for quick polenta and johnnycakes.
flour corn
The endosperm is so soft that it falls apart into a flour every bit as light as wheat flour, and it cooks best by baking. Thus flour corn is useful for producing light breads and pancakes, baking angel cakes and sponge cakes and gravy-making. Some varieties are also good for parching.
dent corn
With mixed characteristics, it has the limitations of both flint and flour corns. Cooking requires both boiling and baking as is done with many polenta recipes or wet-batter breads that first steam before baking.

As I read, I realized that I had never tasted good grain corn. Most field corn grown in this country has been developed for high yield, to feed animals and food-processing plants, not people. Most commercial cornmeal is made from this insipid corn, with seed coat (bran) removed for palatability and the germ removed for shelf-stability (the fat goes rancid rapidly when ground).

I found myself wanting to try both a flint corn and a flour corn. Carol goes into great detail about the best flint and flour varieties for many purposes, cooking characteristics, great flavor, best climates to grow in, short or long term growth, keeping qualities, etc. I could not possibly summarize this information without rewriting her entire chapter on corn. But I can tell you what I wanted based on all the criteria she provided.

For a flint corn, I wanted Rhode Island Whitecap, which Carol rates highly for making whole grain polenta and johnnycakes due to a tender and palatable seed coat. Furthermore, it is traditionally grown in coastal regions from Rhode Island down to Delaware, and while Carlisle, PA isn't a maritime environment, I expect corn that heads up in New England will do well here. Finally, both whole corn and cornmeal of this variety are actually available for sale, allowing me to try it before growing it.

Flour corns are harder to come by, I could not find ANY bulk corn, cornmeal or flour made from a recommended flour corn variety. Even finding seed for most of them is tough, Parching Magenta was the only one I could find at all. I wanted a flour corn both for the amazing baking characteristics Carol described, but also one that was good for parching. I REALLY most wanted to try Carol's own Manna Magic more than anything, but it was not yet commercially available when I began this post. However, I am on Carol's mailing list for heirloom seeds and she just released a new catalog and Manna Magic is there! Woohoo!

my corny adventures/plans

I found some Rhode Island Whitecap cornmeal from a RI mill at $6/pound, so bought some to try. I've made polenta, two different johnnycake recipes and several times made cornbread using Carol's Universal Skilletbread recipe, all of which were utterly scrumptious and unlike anything I've ever tasted.

Manna Magic is not practical to try without growing first; none of the flour corns are as they're only available as seed. So while I technically could buy seed and grind flour myself, that's prohibitively expensive. So while I dislike growing something I don't know I'll like, I decided to buy seed from Carol and grow it.

I only have a small backyard patch, so I can only grow one type of field corn per year, so will keep buying the flint cornmeal. Hopefully, next year I will have results to report on growing and cooking with my own flour corn and next time I'm feeling corny, I'll share my adaption of Carol's cornbread recipe with the milled flint corn.

Finally, I plan once I have some corn of my own to experiment with nixtamalization. While it always seemed overly-complex to me to first produce masa harina and then cook it, I recently read Maize, Masa, and Mexican Mythos - Making Traditional Corn Tortillas from Whole Corn and discovered a method that involves a short boil, then a soak, and then grinding directly into the dough one would fry for tortillas. So I plan to give it a whirl and likely will report back on it.

Meanwhile, even if you have no interest in corn, I highly recommend Carol's book, which is available in both paperback and on Kindle.

If you have any interest at all in gardening, homesteading or self-sufficiency, this has more practical information than you can shake a hoe at. I've been gardening for a couple decades and have read scores of books and was amazed what I learned from her.

And if your primary interest in food lies more along the lines of preparing and eating it, you will find much practical information about the best varieties of corn, beans, potatoes and squash for many different dishes, scores of easy recipes and details about how to cook duck eggs.

Disclosure: Affiliate
Please share any experience you have with growing, cooking or eating field corn!