Endless cornfields whiz past the window on any given summer day’s drive across rural Ohio.
About 3.5 million acres of corn are planted across the state each year, according to Brad Reynolds with the Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association. Reynolds says corn finds its way into countless products consumers use every day.
“A typical grocery store contains about 4,000 items that list corn as an ingredient on the label. You’re talking upward of 4,000 different uses from cornstarch to beer to everything in between. It is widely and vastly used. It’s a beautiful product,” he says.
But Reynolds notes an important distinction between the corn on the cob featured at a summer cookout and the corn found in most Ohio cornfields. Roughly 1 percent of the American corn crop planted each year is of an edible variety. The vast majority of corn acres are planted with field corn, which feeds livestock, fuels vehicles or is processed into other products, like corn syrup for sweeteners. Reynolds says field corn has many consumable uses when broken down into starch, fiber, protein or oil.
Corn Provides Fuel
One use is providing motorists with a renewable fuel choice. The state of Ohio currently has seven ethanol plants that ferment the corn and then further refine it into pure ethanol alcohol. It can then be blended with gasoline. Most fuel is E-10, which contains a 10 percent ethanol blend. Some locations offer blender pumps including E-15, E-30 or even E-85. In 2016, a federal grant helped with placement of about 200 blender pumps across the state.
“We’re really trying to work on making it available,” Reynolds says. “It’s one thing to say, ‘I support ethanol. I’ve done my part.’ And then you go to your gas station in town that you frequent and you don’t have the option.”
He says consumer choice is important as ethanol makes a positive impact on the economy, the environment, energy security and engine performance. Ethanol production also leaves some useful coproducts behind, including dried distiller’s grains that provide high- protein feed for local livestock farms.
Corn Provides Food
Although a very small percentage of corn is grown for human consumption, it represents many favorites on grocery store shelves. Companies like Marion-based Wyandot Inc., use whole-grain corn or cornmeal from food-grade corn to make snacks like tortilla chips and tortilla strips to top salads in restaurants.
“We don’t make Cheetos, but we make products that are somewhat similar to those types of snack foods out of cornmeal, which is dent corn varieties that have been raised specifically for food purposes,” says Don Mount, vice president of contract manufacturing at Wyandot Inc.
The company, which owns the Wyandot Popcorn Museum, also makes millions of pounds of prepopped popcorn sold by movie theaters, convenience stores and other retail outlets across the country. But Mount acknowledges that is still a small segment of the overall corn market.
“That portion of the corn crop in the United States is so small in comparison to the corn that is used for ethanol or animal feed,” Mount says. “Popcorn is even smaller than that segment of the corn that’s raised in the United States.”
Corn Provides Renewable Products
Corn grown in Ohio can end up in anything from batteries to cleaners and aspirin to plastics. Reynolds says Reebok recently announced plans for a shoe made primarily from biological materials, including a plastic derived from corn.
“It’s just a wide variety of uses that the corn has,” Reynolds says. “We need to do a better job of telling that story and getting that message out there.”