There's a plant and grain that's known the world over for its wide range of forms and uses, both on and off the dining room table. In fact, this one food source alone provides an estimated 21 percent of the world's nutrition, and it has been eaten by humans for the last 10,000 years or so. While some people call this marvelous plant and its golden kernels corn, in other places and situations, it's referred to as maize.
Let's take a closer look at the difference between maize and corn and exactly when and where it's appropriate to use one term instead of the other.
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The Great Maize vs. Corn Debate
Here's the easiest way to start: All maize is corn, but not all corn is maize.
Maize is a plant (scientific name: Zea mays) that was domesticated by humans in Central America thousands of years ago and that's now found around the globe in a number of forms. We most often utilize the kernels – or seeds – that grow on the "ears" of the plant for food, livestock feed and lots of other things as well, including fuel.
In some parts of the world, such as the United States, Australia and New Zealand, the plant itself as well as the grain that comes from the plant are called corn. But in other parts of the world, such as Europe, both are referred to as maize, while the word "corn" is more often a general term for the staple grain of a specific area or simply a small nugget or grain.
Often, "corn" and "maize" can be used interchangeably.
Etymology of the Word 'Corn'
Both the word corn and the word grain have their roots in the Proto-Indo-European language – researchers believe they come from either the word ger, which meant "worn down," or gher, which meant "matured." In time, the soft g sound gave way to the harder c sound, and the word corn was born in the Germanic languages.
The word kernel has the same root history as corn.
In the past, corn referred only to the type of grain grown in the area, and it could refer to oats, barley, rye or millet, just for starters. For example, in England, corn might have been wheat, while in Ireland, it might have been oats. Rice has been referred to as corn in places like Java, where it's the staple crop.
When European explorers discovered that corn had been developed in the New World, it was referred to as "Indian corn," because it was the whole grain of the native people. But by the early 1800s, this term had shorted to plain old "corn."
Etymology of the Word 'Maize'
The word "maize" originates from the word mahiz, which was what the indigenous Taino people of the Caribbean called their main crop (it meant "source of life," since it was such an important food source for the population). When the Spanish arrived in the islands for the first time in the 16th century, they called the new-to-them plant maize.
Today, most European languages use the word maize to refer to what Americans and Australians call corn. For example, the word maize is mais in Spanish, French, Italian and German.
What Were Corn and Maize Called Originally?
As you can see from all this information, corn and maize are names that were given to the plant and food by Western sources, even though it was originally domesticated and cultivated in Mesoamerica. What was corn called originally? We can't be sure, although there are at least 68 different ways to say "corn" in indigenous Mexican languages, including ixim, xob, moc and cuxi.
Like mahiz, all of these names translate to corn as a sustainer of civilization or source of life, since it was such a central, staple food in these communities.
Additional Usage Tips for Maize vs. Corn
When the word corn is used in a technical or scientific way, maize is used. For example, a study about the plant, industry information or other research will likely refer to maize instead of the most general and less precise term corn. Maize is often used in the study of genetics, and when it is discussed, it is rarely referred to as corn.
In the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, corn can be used to refer to both the plant itself as well as to the kernels on an ear of corn. In other words, corn grows ears of corn.
When discussing food products and culinary terms, such as cornmeal, cornstarch or corn syrup, corn is used much more often than maize.
What About Corn Mazes?
So there's corn and maize and, of course, corn mazes. A corn maze is a labyrinth that's cut out of a cornfield that's used for entertainment. Corn mazes are a popular way for farms to increase their income, especially around the fall harvest and Halloween.
Corn mazes often have fun shapes, themes, and even built-in clues, games and lookouts. Corn mazes should be made out of specific varieties of corn, which have to be planted at a specific time and tended carefully.
As you might guess by now, in the United Kingdom, corn mazes are known as maize mazes.
What Is Maize or Corn?
We now know that maize or corn is a tall plant that is cultivated for the kernels that grow as the plant matures. But is corn a plant? A vegetable? A fruit? A grain?
As anyone who has ever been told to "eat your vegetables!" knows, sweet corn that appears on your plate, either on the cob or off, is considered a vegetable around the world. Technically, it's considered a vegetable because it's harvested from a plant for consumption.
However, in its dried form, corn or maize is also considered a grain: The dried kernel is a seed and therefore a whole grain.
Finally, corn and maize are also considered a fruit: each kernel is a fleshy, sweet product of a plant that contains seeds.
Types of Corn and Maize
Corn is grown on a larger area of the earth than any other grain – and yet the vast majority of the corn we grow doesn't end up buttered and salted on the dinner table. Here's a breakdown of the different types of corn/maize:
Dent corn or field corn is the most commonly grown corn. Named for the dent that appears in each kernel when it's dried, this type of corn is used for animal feed, corn syrup, manufacturing and fuel.
Sweet corn is higher in sugar and lower in starches than dent corn. It's eaten as a vegetable instead of as a grain – this is the type of corn you eat on or off the cob.
Baby corn is exactly what it sounds like: corn that has been harvested when it is very small and immature. Popular in some types of Asian cuisine and mild in flavor, it's grown mainly in Thailand and shipped across the world in cans or jars.
Popcorn is a variety of corn that pops into a delicious white fluffy morsel when heated. Not all types of corn pop – popcorn comes from a specially cultivated variety.
Flint corn is named for its toughness. It's a variant of maize that is multicolored – just as it was when cultivated by indigenous groups, and it's often milled into cornmeal or flour. Sometimes, flint corn is Indian corn.
The Many Uses of Corn or Maize
Once corn has been grown and harvested, it can be transformed into many products. For human consumption, corn or maize may be used for:
Cornmeal is dried, ground dent corn – and it comes in either yellow or white iterations. It is used to make everything from cornbread to corn tortillas.
Corn flour is very finely ground dried dent corn, often used in gluten-free recipes.
Cornstarch is the product of the extraction of starch from corn kernels. It's also sometimes called corn flour in some parts of the world, which we admit is a little confusing. Cornstarch is a thickening agent that is utilized in tons of dishes, from soups and stews to pies and puddings.
Corn syrup is a thick liquid made from cornstarch that is used in a wide range of processed foods. Why? Because it enhances flavor, improves texture and increases volume. High fructose corn syrup also sweetens foods.
Hominy is a traditional Mexican corn product made of dried kernels that have been treated with an alkali such as lye or lime. Hominy can be eaten as a whole kernel or as cornmeal or grits.
Grits are a traditional Southern dish made by cooking white cornmeal in water. They're often served as a breakfast food paired with butter or cheese. Some grits are made with ground hominy.
Polenta is a thick, warm porridge Italian dish that uses cornmeal as its base. Authentic polenta is made with flint corn, not dent corn.
In addition to foodstuffs, corn/maize is also used in a surprising number of inedible products, including fuels, chemicals, paints, plastics, solvents and even explosives. Finally, as mentioned, maize is also used extensively in the study of biology and genetics.
The Health Benefits of Maize or Corn
Americans consume an average of 160 pounds of corn each year – and in some cultures, those in which corn is a central part of the diet, that number is even higher. Is that much corn good for us?
As a fruit, vegetable and grain, corn comes with a wide range of benefits:
- Corn is more affordable than most other natural plant-based food sources, allowing even those with very low incomes and those in developing countries to have a way to get nutrition.
- Corn is higher in protein than many veggies, and it's an important building bock of bones, muscles and skin. Vegetarians and vegans can add corn to their diet to make sure they're getting enough of this vital nutrient.
- Corn is rich in antioxidants, especially carotenoids, which means that it helps humans stay healthy and prevents a number of chronic diseases, including cancer and heart disease.
- Corn is a great source of fiber, which aids in digestion, weight control and longevity.
- Finally, corn is gluten free, which makes it a great food for gluten-intolerant people to eat so they can have a balanced and full diet.
White Corn vs. Yellow Corn
Corn and maize come in a rainbow of colors, including yellow, white, orange, blue and purple. They can also be multi-colored, with white and yellow corn the most popular varieties. What's the difference in these color variants?
Different corn varieties may have different amounts of sugars and starches, but color doesn't specifically affect taste. The only difference may be that the more colorful ears contain more beta carotene, an antioxidant that can boost your health. So, for a slight health boost, choose yellow corn over white corn at the grocery store.
- New York Times: Tracking the Ancestry of Corn Back 9,000 Years
- Healthline: Is Corn A Vegetable?
- Encyclopedia Britanica: Corn
- Bon Appetit: The Etymology of the Word 'Corn'
- Culinary Lore: Why Do We Call Maize Corn?
- Whole Grain Council: Types of Corn
- Thrillist: What is Baby Corn?
- Serious Eats: The Serious Eats Guide to Corn
- Epicurious: The Difference Between Cornmeal, Corn Flour, Polenta, and Grits
- Medical News Today: Is Corn Healthful?