I just read that the United States produces 32 percent of the world’s corn, which is three times the amount of any other country. Most of us know about the many uses of corn, and most newsworthy is the use in the making of high fructose corn syrup. This additive is used in so many everyday products. If you have not seen the 2007 documentary movie King Corn you should try to create the opportunity to see it. It really is an eye opener to the many uses in modern food service for the additive, mostly in many less expensive foods including a host of fast food and convenience food choices.
A second common use of corn in our modern society is in the additive given to gasoline during the warmer months to help alleviate pollution, ethanol. Ethanol, the same chemical formula for the alcohol we drink, is added to most gasolines to be in compliance with the 1990s amendments to the Clean Air Act. This helps add to the high cost of gasoline, especially during the summer travel months. Most gas in the United States contains 10 percent ethanol, which almost all cars function well with, but many cars are designed for E15 15% Ethanol. Along with the United States, Brazil is a leader in producing and using ethanol gas, with many Brazilian cars designed to use E25 gas. The United States is the largest producer of Ethanol, and along with Brazil both countries produce over 87% of the world’s ethanol.
By far the largest use of corn in the United States is for livestock feed, which is used when the corn is allowed to grow to full maturity. Another less abundant use of corn is as fresh corn, harvested while still a little immature. This is usually only a seasonal item. This corn is still sweet, while the livestock feed corn has converted the sugar molecules in the corn into starch molecules. This was a big concern for corn on the cob, as after harvest the sugars change very quickly making fresh sweet corn a challenge in areas away from the harvest. This has changed in recent years as the industry is producing corn that is “supersweet,” allowing an extended shelf life.
Corn starch, obtained by soaking the endosperm of the corn, is used widely in the foodservice industry as a thickener, but is also the main ingredient in preparing high fructose corn syrup. Corn syrup is produced by combining corn starch with water and enzymes in a multi-stage process that produces the syrup. Corn syrup is used in foods to soften texture, add volume, prevent crystallization of sugar and enhance flavor. Regular corn syrup is not a nutritional concern, but when it is converted to high fructose corn syrup by converting some of the glucose to fructose it is a concern to nutritionists. High fructose corn syrup has been linked to higher calorie intake which leads to other health problems including weight gain, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and high levels of triglycerides. All of these variables lead to a much higher risk factor for heart disease.
Corn starch was first discovered in 1840 and spent a little more than a decade only being used in starching for laundry. It was later discovered that it had other culinary and non-culinary uses, including a non-caking agent in items such as powdered sugar or talcum baby powder. Corn starch is also used as an anti-sticking additive in the medical industry such as used in gloves. As for culinary uses, corn starch can be added to dairy products such as yogurt and cheeses to lower the production costs during manufacturing by working as an ingredient stabilizer. More commonly corn starch is used as a thickening agent because it thickens very quickly and creates a clear thickened sauce rather than an opaque one. Some advantages of using cornstarch over flour are that the corn derivative thickens at twice the rate of flour and is flavorless. Like flour, it needs to be cooked for a short period of time to remove a raw starchiness from the product, as well as to reach the proper temperature for gelatinization the absorption of liquids needed for thickening. Cornstarch should be added to a cold liquid to create what is called a slurry, before being added to hot liquids. The thicker the slurry the more it will thicken; an ideal consistency is something close to that of glue. If an item thickened with cornstarch is heated for a long period of time or agitated too much it may start to break down. One big advantage to using cornstarch, especially in this day and age, is that the product is gluten free.