Corn: Ancient Grains

Corn is an ancient grain with a fascinating history that most people don't know about. Originally from Mesoamerica, more specifically Mexico, corn is now found in all parts of the world where the crop can grow. Today 40% of all corn that is cultivated is consumed by people, while the remaining 60% is used to feed animals, and to support consumer goods industries all over the world. So how did corn become such an important crop? Read more to find out.

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Corn: Ancient Grains

The Evolution of Corn

10,000 years ago, there was no such thing as corn, just a wild grassy plant called Teosinte. This plant looked little like the corn that we know today, but ancient farmers, in what is now Mexico, domesticated the corn, or maize, by choosing which kernels (seeds) to plant. In doing so, these ancient farmers transformed teosinte into corn through artificial selection, which is the process of breeding certain types of plants for desired qualities.

Some of these modifications included changes in:

  • Corn types and amount of starch production
  • The corn’s ability to grow in different climates and soil types
  • Length and number of kernel rows
  • Kernel size, shape, and color
  • Resistance towards pests

With the modification of teosinte, farmers developed a prototype of corn, based on a yearly selection of what they considered to be the best corn samples to take seeds from for the following season.

With each generation, the crops were enriched with qualities that would make them more desirable for humans. Over time, these modifications, which improved the crops from year to year, have developed into the classic corn that we know today.

Illustration of the evolution of corn from right to left.

A Gift from the Gods

While the origin of corn is still questioned amongst researchers, archaeological evidence suggests that the domestication of corn originated in what is now the south-central region of Mexico. Corn has historically been highly respected and valued as an important crop for the people of this region. When the Spanish Conquistadores (settlers) arrived in Mexico, they discovered corn for the first time, but up until that point, ancient indigenous civilizations had been growing, harvesting, and consuming corn for thousands of years.

In fact, corn was such an important part of life in this region that several indigenous societies worshipped corn, and regarded it as the most important crop - something that was gifted by the gods. Both the Mayan and Aztec civilizations worshiped a corn god, and believed that humankind was created from corn

...So why was corn given such value?

Part of why corn was regarded with such appreciation came from the fact, that corn crops were easy to produce, and could also sustain a person for an entire day. This made corn an excellent crop for sustaining the general population, while also providing more manpower and wealth for the chieftains of these indigenous civilizations. Corn in the Americas was like wheat in Europe - only better! (in our humble opinion!).

At first, the European settlers didn’t pay much attention to it, but shortly after their arrival; they began to learn about the benefits of producing this golden crop. By the beginning of the 1500s, Columbus brought corn back to Spain from his first and second voyage to the Americas. By the mid-1500s corn began to grow in Spain, Bulgaria, and Turkey, and was later transported to Africa and Asia.

From Corn to Tortillas

To this day, corn remains a staple in the Mexican diet. Mexicans continue to use their ancient grain as a basis for making tacos, tamales, atole, and much, much more.

Corn is also used as a basis for making masa (dough), which is used to make tortillas, which are easily one of the most essential staples in Mexican cuisine, as they can be used as a base for breakfast, lunch, and dinner meals.

Nevertheless, for corn to be used to make tortillas, it must go through a process called nixtamalization - a method that was developed by the ancient Mayan civilization.

The process consists of cooking dried kernels in a solution of lime, in which the corn is boiled and later dried and hulled. The kernels are then placed in a metate, or mortar and grounded into a corn flour, which is then mixed with water to form the masa. If you are interested in learning about the history and use of Mexican cooking tools, then read more here. While corn can be eaten in many different ways, besides making delicious tortillas, there are a number of benefits that come from the process of nixtamalization. It not only makes it easier to grind dried corn kernels, but also releases some of the vitamins that are found in corn such as vitamin C and A.

If you’ve ever eaten a cob of corn before, you’ll know that what goes in, and what goes out looks pretty much the same (sorry for the image!) – but by grinding the corn, and removing the outer shell of the kernels, it is easier for the human body to digest and absorb the vitamins in corn. The limy solution also increases the level of calcium, iron, and zinc in corn.

Picture taken from Nud Dudhia's article "Nixtamalization: How to Make a Proper Tortilla" (Breddos Tacos).

Corn Production in the US vs. Mexico

A highly discussed topic in both the US and Mexico concerns GMO-grown corn. In Mexico, the use and testing of GMOs has been banned since 1998 to protect native corn sorts and agricultural heritage. In the US, the use of GMOs is largely widespread, and as a result it is generally cheaper for Mexicans to buy US-imported corn, because of the low price, and because of US-Mexican trade policies. One of these, is that the Mexican government, by encouragement of the US, has decided to pay farmers for producing the most profitable corn sorts.

As s result, the variety of corn sorts in Mexico has decreased dramatically. While there are still thousands of varieties of corn in Mexico, the spread of the native corn sorts is largely threatened. Since much of the corn that is produced in Mexico is exported to the to US, Mexican farmers tend to focus more on cultivating corn sorts that are in demand in the US. One of these is the “White Dent”, (as shown to the right), which is the one used mostly for industrially made corn tortillas.

In the US, much of the corn that is grown today is classified as the “Yellow Dent” corn, (as shown to the right). This type of corn is typically used by US food manufactures to produce different food products, but is also used to make ethanol (primarily for biofuels), oil, high-fructose syrup, and bio-based plastic.

The approaches to growing and using corn in these two countries can, therefore, be said to be quite different. In the US, only 1% of the corn that is produced is used for human consumption, while in Mexico, where corn is a staple food, 28% of the corn that is produced is used for human consumption.

Types of Corn

While there are thousands of varieties of corn sorts in Mexico alone, including corn sorts that are grown in other parts of the world, here are the six primary classifications:

Flour corn

This type of corn is soft and starchy. It is mostly used to make corn flour, and the kernels can have different colors, but the most common colors are white and blue.


This type of corn has great popping qualities! It’s the type that is used for popcorn and has kernels that are small and hard. When heated, the moisture inside the kernels turns into steam creating pressure, which eventually makes the kernels explode.

Dent corn

Dent corn, which is the sort mostly grown in the US, has both hard and soft starches. Because of this, it becomes indented once the corn has dried, thus the name “dent” corn.

Flint corn

Flint corn, or “Indian corn” is usually white or yellow, and has kernels that are rounded at the top. It is grown mostly in India, but also in Europe, Asia, South, and Central America.

The kernels are hard and are often distinguished by a wide range of colors, often multicolored as well.

Sweet corn

As the name indicates, sweet corn has a sweeter taste than other corn types, because it contains a high amount of sugars. The kernels are soft, starchy, and won’t pop. Unlike other corn sorts that are picked when dry and mature, sweet corn is picked and eaten in the milk stage, when the corn is immature and tender.

Pod corn

A common misconception about this corn sort is that it is an ancient, wild type of corn. Rather, pod corn is a mutant type of corn that forms leaves around each kernel. This type of corn is not grown commercially. Pod corn is usually used for decorative purposes.