What the Hell is Corn?


Kitchen Knowledge Lifestyle | Published July 13, 2023 by Mimi Council

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Ah, the great debate of corn. Is corn a vegetable? Is corn a starch? Is corn a grain? Is corn a fruit? A fruit, what? These are all valid questions that may cross your mind every time you bit into crisp and sweet corn on the cob. So, what the hell is corn? If corn is not a vegetable what is it?

If you’re from the Midwest, like me, then you may have grown up believing or being told that corn is most definitely a vegetable. You know us Midwesterners, we’ll put a shit ton of potatoes and mayo in a bowl and call it salad. So, of course, why wouldn’t we classify corn as a vegetable!?

if corn is not a vegetable what is it

Growing up, my mom had rules about what we ate. We had to have vegetables with dinner every night. And corn was on her approved list for vegetables. So, all my life, I have been a believer that corn is most definitely a vegetable.

I casually mentioned corn being a vegetable the other day to my husband, Delaney, who grew up on Maui and he looked at me like I was from a completely different world and not just a different state. And then he told me plain as day that corn is a grain and looked at me like I was insane.

But recently, on the newest season of Queer Eye, I heard Antoni say that corn is a starch. Now, I have my mom telling me it’s a vegetable, my husband telling it’s a grain, and Antoni telling me it’s a starch. All of these people are highly valued in my life, and I trust them all. So, if corn is not a vegetable then what is it?

This led me to Googling what the hell is corn? And let me be the first to say, the debate is real because Uncle Google didn’t even have a clear answer for me either!

real simple corn salad

The History of Corn

The history of corn goes back a long time. According to NDSU, it’s believed that people have been growing corn for over 7,000 years and it originated in central Mexico. Back then it was a wild grass called teosinte and it looked very different than our corn does today. Native Americans were thought to have brought corn to the states and from there it morphed into what you know as corn.

According to WebMD, corn is a “starchy vegetable”. They say that corn has a higher sugar and carb content [than other veggies]. But, they also say it has great health benefits too! According to University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, corn is actually classified by botanists as a fruit!

USDA actually had a great response to the corn question, deeming corn a grain or a vegetable, depending on when its harvested. If it’s harvested early, the kernels are still juicy, making this a vegetable. If it’s harvested when it’s more mature, as in popcorn kernels or when dry, it can be milled into cornmeal and used in tortillas and cornbread – then it’s considered to be a whole grain.

I liked Healthline because it says corn is a vegetable, a whole grain, or a fruit. It just checks all the boxes! I liked this response because corn is so adaptable depending on how it’s being used.

if corn is not a vegetable what is it

Is corn bad for you?

Corn has been enjoyed for many years and it’s been part of our diet for so long. But if that’s the case, then why has corn gotten such a bad rap over the years? Why is it listed in the top 7 allergens on ingredient labels, and why do people believe it’s bad, or avoid it?

As a Midwesterner, I’ve been asking myself this question for a while, because if you’re from the Midwest corn is sacred. Just like rice to the Hawaiians or pasta to the Italians. So, I just don’t understand how corn can be thought of as bad for you!

But the truth is, corn has gotten a bad rap over the years. Nutritionists or health foodies often times will tell you to avoid corn. But, the truth is, corn is not bad for you! And here’s why.

The pesticides and herbicides that are sprayed on crops, often stay on them and therefore on the food you consume. Corn is one of the vegetables (yes, I said vegetable, I'm sticking with it!) that absorbs very high amounts of these chemicals, therefore you are absorbing those chemicals when eating corn that is not organic. This can cause problems for any person, even though the corn may not be the problem, but more so just the messenger.

So, if you’ve been avoiding corn because you “think it’s bad” but don’t really know why, it’s really the way that corn in our country has come to be mass produced that is bad for you. This can also be said for any vegetables that are grown using GMOs and sprayed with pesticides!

But corn full of GMOs and chemicals may be worse than other things grown the same way due to its ability to absorb these chemicals even more, therefore making these chemicals easier to enter the body when corn is eaten. No wonder it has a bad rap!

if corn is not a vegetable what is it

What are the health benefits of corn?

But corn is actually really good for you! Corn is rich in Vitamin C, which is an antioxidant that helps protect cells and boost your immune system. Yellow corn is a good source of the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which are good for eye health and exert various biological activities, including anti-inflammatory activity. Corn is a good source of fiber, Vitamin D, and magnesium!

As long as you are buying organic corn, you should feel good about enjoying this vegetable (yes, I said vegetable) all summer long. Corn is in season from May through September. So hit up your local farmers market, check the grocery store, and stick to fresh organic corn on the cob to reap these health benefits and get the tastiest corn!

In the winter when corn is not in season, opt for organic canned or frozen corn, as these are processed when corn is at its peak in season. Or enjoy your corn in the form of organic popcorn while watching a movie in front of the fire. Try my Rosemary Sea Salt Popcorn for a delicious homemade popcorn recipe!

If you’re baking with corn syrup for things like my Homemade Chocolate Marshmallows, then make sure you’re buying organic corn syrup. My favorite comes from Wholesome, I believe they are the only company that makes an organic version. And enjoy sweets with corn syrup in moderation, it makes them more enjoyable and keeps you healthier!

There’s no doubt that corn is magical, and it has the ability to transform into many things, making it an amazing food to eat, cook, and bake with. Be sure to always buy organic corn from trusted farmers or brands. And opt for the sweet yellow corn as that’s always my fave being Midwest born and raised! I believe it is the tastiest kind!

So, in conclusion, corn is whatever the hell you want it to be! If you’re eating it off the cob, call it a veggie! If you’re enjoying its popped kernels as popcorn for a snack, call it a whole grain, and if it’s used as corn syrup in baked goods call it a sugary starch. But don’t let corn scare you guys. This magical food is delicious and nutritious, just be sure to buy organic.

if corn is not a vegetable what is it

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