Heirloom Corn

Grow whole-grain heirloom corn for the health benefits and for their great taste.

| April/May 2004

Grow these colorful whole-grain heirloom corn for improved nutrition and great taste.

We may live in the "corncrib of the world," with annual U.S. production of more than 500 billion pounds of corn — grown mostly for livestock — but we have lost our appreciation for corn as a whole grain to cook and eat ourselves. Today, we think of corn mostly as a sweet vegetable, but — not to take away from sweet corn many varieties of unsweet grain corn deserve much wider use in our gardens and kitchens than they receive.

Corn was developed about 6,000 years ago in the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico. Eventually, many American Indian tribes came to depend upon this easy-to-grow, protein-rich grain. Modern, commercial grain corn products commonly are degermed to lengthen their shelf life, but degerming takes flavor and nutrition out of the corn. So, if you want to enjoy the most flavorful and nutritious corn possible, you have to do what the Oaxacans did — grow and grind your own.

"The flavors of Indian corn range from a perfumey, aromatic taste to a deep corn flavor," says Walter Goldstein, research director at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy, Wis. Carol Deppe, a grain corn hybridizer in Corvallis, Ore., and author of Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties adds, "Good corn products are not found in unrefrigerated boxes at the supermarket."

Processed cornmeal, grits, polenta and other corn products have had their skins and germs removed, both of which carry much of the flavor. The germ is removed because it's high in natural fats, which turn rancid quickly after the corn is ground if it's not refrigerated. Removing the germ from the corn dramatically reduces several vitamins and minerals (see "Why Whole Wheat is Way Better.")

And there's another problem: Mass-market corn products, including most organic ones, are made from high-yield hybrids rather than from high-flavor corns. "Agribusiness corn doesn't taste good, even when ground into whole-grain products and handled properly," Deppe says. "The optimal corns for people-food come from heirloom or specialty varieties."

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