Cheap, plentiful and seemingly in everything

Oct 14, 2013

Corn is ubiquitous and there are two broad reasons for that: it is cheap and it is versatile.

The price of corn held steady—and low—for decades before the ethanol market took off . But even in recent years when the price shot up over $8-a-bushel, it remained viable as a raw material for many uses beyond food, animal feed and fuel.

Larry Johnson, director of the Center for Crops Utilization Research at Iowa State University, said the focus of his 30-year-old center is to help keep farmers in business.

Part of the center’s mission of finding new uses for corn and soybeans, he said, “is to help sustain the small farmer. [We] create more uses so that there will be more demand, so that higher prices are paid to farmers who need the income.”

Larry Johnson, director of the Center for Crops Utilization Research at Iowa State University, says ensuring the livelihood of farmers is part of his center's mission.
Credit Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media

But, Johnson explained, corn also has certain physical characteristics that make it appealing to companies—including businesses that help fund research at the center.

“[Corn is] easily processed,” Johnson said. “We can take it apart into various components.” Those include starch, protein, fat and fiber, each of which then has myriad applications.

In the edible realm, Johnson said far beyond the corn we eat as corn (which accounts for only about 1 percent of all the corn grown), about one-third of the starch from corn ends up in food products, contributing to the overwhelming likelihood of a packaged food containing a corn ingredient.

“About 80 percent of the foods we eat contain a corn ingredient,” Johnson said. “It’s sort of hidden in all the manufactured food products that we eat.”

But corn starch is also found coating paper to create a printable surface. Corn is used as binder in charcoal briquettes. Adhesives, carpets, plastic bottles, even some textiles contain corn components.

The 5,000-square-foot Wet Processing Pilot Plant for the Center for Crops Utilization Research at Iowa State University.
Credit Center for Crops Utilization Research, ISU

Johnson said there’s a bit of a dichotomy between the desire to get farmers a fair price for their corn—through increasing demand for the product they grow—and providing a steady and inexpensive raw ingredient to the companies that want to use it. So he said researchers do pay attention to the trends in corn prices and for some high-value end uses, higher corn prices would significantly impact a manufacturer or processor. But other uses, such as the starch used in paper coatings, don’t rely on much corn.  

“Probably the vast majority [of uses] are sensitive to that price of corn-derived material,” he said, but not overwhelmingly so. He said there are thousands of markets for small amounts of corn components.

In some cases, corn is the go-to choice unless or until its price or availability render that impractical. Not every application can accept a substitution, but some can. At corn processor Ajinomoto in Eddyville, Iowa, the component of the corn the company uses is the sugar—which it ferments into the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG). In fact, Ajinomoto buys corn, has it shipped to a processor, receives the liquid sugar it needs, and sells back to the processor all the other parts that it does not want. General Manager Jeff Peyton said Ajinomoto also makes MSG in other places, using different raw materials.

A selection of Ajinomoto retail food products.

“We use the corn, some other locations use beet sugar, they’ll use tapioca, so different starches,” he said. “It makes us a stronger company in that maybe we have some challenges with the corn prices, where they’re seeing some better situations within some of their pricing structures. There’s cycles that happen within the different territories—you go up and you go down.”

But for the most part, Ajinomoto does not adjust its prices when the commodity price of corn fluctuates, and that helps keep retail prices stable on everything from Doritos to Trader Joe’s frozen vegetable meals to Tamari soy sauce—all products that contain Ajinomoto MSG.

In addition to the components in the kernel, Johnson said work at the center is underway on uses for the cob and the stover.

“One interesting project that we are working on is to turn the cob into paper pulp,” Johnson said, noting that the company investing in the research requested he not elaborate. Similarly, he said once corn stover is incorporated as a fuel feedstock—work that’s underway—“there are many other value added uses that come along—some of which, unfortunately, I can’t disclose because we’re working with companies that are highly secretive.”

One novel use that he said is in the marketplace is a textile made from corn fiber. Shirts have already been sewn from the resulting fabric.

“It’s been commercialized, but to what extent it’s been commercialized, I’m not sure,” Johnson said. “It’s certainly on the verge of being widely available.”

So soon you may be able to wear your Corn Belt pride—without spilling a soda down your front.