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Popcorn, sweet corn, grain corn. What’s the difference?

Sweet Corn

Let’s imagine a happier time — mid-July. You’re driving past a corn field. Mmm, field-fresh sweet corn.

Most people think that the corn fields they see at the side of the road produce popcorn or sweet corn. In reality, those crops only come from about 1% of the acres of corn we plant every year in Ontario. The vast majority of corn fields that you drive by are grain corn fields; they don’t produce popcorn or sweet corn at all. Instead, grain corn is used to produce consumer products like ethanol, corn flakes, deodorant, whiskey, diapers, fireworks, shampoo… the list goes on and on. Grain corn is a major ingredient in over 2,500 different items found at your local grocery store!

The easiest way to tell the difference between a field of grain corn and a field of sweet corn is to watch when the corn is being harvested. Sweet corn gets harvested in the summer (that’s also when the best, freshest sweet corn is available at the grocery store and at roadside stands). Popcorn and grain corn are both harvested in the fall, once the plant dries down and the kernels lose the majority of their moisture. Farmers need to wait for the moisture to decrease in order to store the grain — if the kernel moisture it too high, the crop can spoil in storage. When grain corn is harvested at a high moisture, it can be mechanically dried down to the correct level, but popcorn has a very specific moisture level that it needs to be harvested at or else it won’t pop. There’s no easy way to tell the difference between grain corn and popcorn as you drive by the field, but if you guessed it was grain corn you’d be right at least 99 times out of 100.

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