If the old farmers’ saying is correct, stalks of corn should have long passed the “knee-high by the Fourth of July” milestone and be well on their way to reaching maturity for harvest, which can last from late summer to late fall. It’s a crucially important time: Corn is planted on some 90 million acres across the country. The United States exports nearly $10 billion of it each year, making it by far the world’s largest producer.
Much of the corn grown here goes to feed livestock, but it is still a large part of most Americans’ everyday diets. Besides eating food such as cereal, tortillas, chips and polenta, we also consume processed corn as oil, sweeteners, syrup and starch. But the healthiest preparation is also the simplest. “Whole unprocessed corn contains the most nutrients and is the best for you,” says Dr. Adetunji Toriola, a Washington University assistant professor of surgery and researcher at Siteman Cancer Center. “It’s a good source of fiber, vitamins and minerals, and the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin. These antioxidants are essential for eye health, they help reduce or delay cell damage, and they may play a role in preventing chronic diseases, including cancer.” To get the most nutrients from corn, Toriola says grilling is a good option, but boiling is even better. That’s because some evidence indicates that food charred on a grill may contain carcinogens, though it seems to affect meat more than vegetables.
Fruit and nuts get all the accolades for fiber, but corn also contains a significant amount. The fiber found in one large ear of corn contains 15 percent of daily fiber for women (and slightly less for men). “Fiber aids in a healthy digestive tract and also with weight maintenance. It leaves you feeling fuller, so it reduces snacking in between meals and prevents possible weight gain,” Dr. Toriola says. He points out that maintaining a healthy weight and incorporating vegetables and fruits into your diet are among the best ways to reduce cancer and all the risks associated with obesity. Popcorn makes a filling, low-calorie snack, as long as it hasn’t been loaded with salt and butter.
Most foods containing the word “sweet” are not particularly healthy, but just the opposite is true for sweet corn. Its name hints that it is high in sugar, but Dr. Toriola says that it has less than half the amount of sugar found in bananas and one-third of what’s found in apples. He says one thing consumers should be aware of, however, is corn that has been genetically modified. Whether genetically modified food is an overall positive or negative development has been a subject of intense debate for years. Still, Dr. Toriola recommends buying varieties that have been grown without the use of chemicals when possible. Farmers markets are in full swing, and this month they’ll be overflowing with corn of all kinds. It’s a terrific opportunity to ask some questions and learn a little bit more about who grew your food and how.
Few things make a better late summer snack than a bunch of tortilla chips playing Ring Around the Rosie with a fresh bowl of salsa. Yellow corn chips have long been the standard, but blue corn chips have taken a bite out of the market in recent years, in part because of their reputation for being a healthier choice. Blue corn does have more protein and less starch than yellow corn, and it has anthocyanins—the antioxidant responsible for the vegetable’s deep blue hue that is known to combat inflammation. Regardless of color, fried corn chips are still fried corn chips, so keep an eye on portion size.
Picture tidy rows of corn growing on a farm somewhere in Iowa, and you’re probably picturing dent corn—or at least a close relative of it. Dent corn (or field corn) is so named because of the indentation that forms at the top of each kernel as it dries out. Because it is low in sugar and high in starch, it’s not a kind that can be eaten right off the cob. Dent corn is most often used to make ethanol and feed livestock. It’s also used in a variety of processed foods after it has been ground.
Also known as Indian corn, flint corn is a hearty crop that can weather cool temperatures without freezing, thanks to its low water content. Even its name references the formidable strength of the shell that protect the corn kernel inside. Though these jewel-toned kernels are lovely to look at—and a reminder that autumn is right around the corner—they’re decidedly less lovely to eat. Most varieties of flint corn are meant for ornamentation, and others are only good after they’ve been ground into cornmeal and masa, key ingredients.
Though sweet yellow corn on the cob is now considered an indispensable part of American backyard barbecues, that wasn’t always the case. At the turn of the century most people thought of yellow corn as animal food. Then Golden Bantam corn—an heirloom variety—changed everything. Its quick growing time, sunny color and pleasantly sweet flavor was an instant hit with farmers, and Golden Bantam continues to be one of the top-selling varieties of corn for home growers and consumers today.
Not just any corn kernels pop. The kernels need to be high in starch and moisture so they’ll expand and burst from their shells when heated. Popcorn—a kind of flint corn—has the right amount of both. This variety has been cultivated throughout Mexico and South America for thousands of years. There’s evidence that Aztecs figured out how to pop it 500 years ago, and it’s been enjoyed as a snack in the United States since the mid-1800s. The U.S. produces almost all the world’s popcorn; a quarter of it comes from Nebraska.
In Good Taste is brought to you in partnership with Siteman Cancer Center. Watch for more healthy, seasonal cooking ideas each month.