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Why Is Corn Such a Trash Vegetable?

Unless it’s popped, it never seems to be up to any good

Corn’s ability to be all things to all people is part of its charm. Despite the fact that it pops up disguised as a vegetable in places like Campbell’s Vegetable Soup, or the fact that it’s considered a grain when it’s completely dried out, don’t let that distract you from the fact that corn is, for all intents and purposes, a fruit. If the part of a plant that you’re eating is a root, tuber, leaf, stem, bulb or flower, you’re technically eating a vegetable, but if you’re eating the mature ovary of a flowering plant, it’s a fruit. Corn is the mature ovary of a flowering plant. Ergo, it’s a fruit.

Definitional debates aside, you shouldn’t permit corn’s versatility and abundance of uses to distract you from the fact that it’s basically garbage. It’s a lousy grain, it’s a lousy vegetable, and whenever you try to convert it into something else, it’s bad at that, too. The only redeeming quality of corn is that there’s so much of it, and therein lies the rub: Corn grows so plentifully in the U.S. that people are more than willing to stumble over themselves to find new projects for corn to undertake, even if corn does an inadequate job with every one of those projects. 

As perhaps the most famous example, trying to produce an environmentally friendly fuel source out of corn actually worsened the environment, caused a price spike on everything people eat due to the interwovenness of corn with respect to practically everything related to food and agriculture and derailed the fight against hunger by converting corn that could have fed 500 million people for an entire year into 13 billion gallons of fuel

Well, wait just a minute: Why are you calling corn a bad grain?

That’s easy to ascertain if we just take a brief tour through fairly recent history. 

It was the Kellogg brothers — adherents to the vegetarianism-promoting teachings of Seventh-day Adventism’s prophet Ellen G. White — who pioneered the process for converting corn into a cereal form. Although the initial intent behind the vegetarianism of the Adventists was to promote health — and that’s part of what prompted the Kelloggs’ repurposing of corn — the hybrid vegetable/fruit/grain is now the primary sugar-conveyance mechanism and foremost ingredient contained in Kellogg’s cereals like Frosted Flakes, Apple Jacks, Corn Pops and Froot Loops

But the prominence of corn in some of these brands underscores the problem: When Froot Loops debuted in 1963, its box described it as, “Real fruit flavor in a sugar-crystalized oat cereal.” Today, the oats have been completely eradicated in favor of corn. Apple Jacks were defined as “corn, wheat and oats blended into crisp rings of nourishment” when they hit the market in 1965, but if you look at the apple-flavored cereal’s modern nutrition label, there are so few wheat or oats present that the two grains now rank below sugar on the list of ingredients. 

Put bluntly, two of the core components of a multigrain cereal — literally the cereal grains — rank below sugar as ingredients in the actual cereal. It’s essentially corn and sugar with the essence of wheat and oats. The abundance of corn has made it so cheap to acquire that established brands are willing to sacrifice the sanctity of their ingredients in order to save a few pennies. 

This, of course, is a major dietary disservice to consumers. Don’t believe me? Take a no-frills gander at a head-to-head comparison between cornmeal and oatmeal, the flours yielded from each of the two grains. The oatmeal contains more fat and protein, which are both good things. It also has more than twice the fiber, nearly double the iron and 10 times the calcium of cornmeal. Oatmeal also crushes the cornmeal in every mineral category, leaving cornmeal’s only discernible advantage isolated to the presence of vitamin B. 

In short: To the extent that corn can be justifiably considered a grain, it shouldn’t be your first-round draft pick.

Okay, fine. But what about if we think of corn as a vegetable?

On the basis of corn’s nutrition, it’s impossible to rationally argue that a person should consume corn in lieu of a similar quantity of most other vegetables. You would need to eat more than eight cups of celery to equal the calories contained in one cup of corn, although that same cup of celery would have five times corn’s vitamin A, half of its vitamin C and more than half of its potassium. In reality, if you actually wanted to make the argument that corn is worth consuming for its vitamin C, then a cup of green beans has nearly double the vitamin C and eight times the vitamin A while delivering the same amount of iron. A cup of spinach similarly smokes corn in several of these categories while raising your caloric count by a mere seven calories.

Again, corn is most accurately defined as a fruit, but if we’re going to play this game of vague definitions, let’s compare corn with actual vegetables based on the expectations people typically have for them. And all I have to say about corn’s digestibility is: “Smokey… you been eatin’ corn, huh?” 

There’s a reason Ezal could so easily identify the product of Smokey’s weed-induced binge-eating in Friday, and that’s because corn is so hard to digest that most cattle can’t even fully break it down before it becomes embedded in their stool. Further processing is required to improve corn’s digestibility, but it’s that very same processing that converts corn into a substandard grain, or ultimately transforms it into a sugar substitute of the most compromising sort, by making it a one-to-one, calorie-for-calorie replacement for cane sugar and beet sugar in soda.

I see your point, but what if we think of corn as what it is scientifically — a fruit?

Then the irony is that there was never a real fruit in Froot Loops until they added corn to it.

In all seriousness, a cup of corn would still have twice the calories of a cup of apples, but once you eat two cups’ worth of apples to equalize the calories, that’s when the rest of the nutritional properties of apples and corn also begin to even out on a nutrient-per-calorie basis. Which perfectly underscores the point: The trade-offs of corn are similar to those involved in many classic fruits. Shoot, while we’re on the subject, a cup of pineapple has less than two-thirds of corn’s calories, but also contains more than the entire USDA recommended daily requirement of vitamin C. 

So, in a nutshell, that’s why corn is trash, and we’ve barely scratched the surface. We could further delve into how efforts to make bioplastics out of corn resulted in an increase in the number of contaminants in recycled materials, and the process used to make it further increases greenhouse gas emissions. 

No matter what itch you’re counting on corn to scratch, there’s a more suitable replacement lurking somewhere that could better accomplish your objectives. And honestly, if corn ruins everything it touches, why would you let it anywhere near the inside of your stomach?