sweet v dent corn
The shorter stalks on the left are sweet corn, the taller ones on the right are field, or dent, corn.

Sweet corn. It’s almost as American as apple pie. Check out this short video explaining the difference.

If you’re barbequing with friends and family on a sunny weekend evening, chances are good that corn on the cob is part of the menu. Or maybe you’re celebrating Thanksgiving with a plump turkey and all the fixings – mashed potatoes, dressing, cranberries, and a nice big serving bowl filled with sweet corn.

When most people think of corn, it’s sweet corn that comes to mind. But the fact is, of the 97.4 million acres of corn planted in the United States in 2013, sweet corn made up less than 1 percent of the total crop. The rest was field corn.

When driving through rural Washington, it’s usually field corn you see out your window. Although field corn kernels start out soft like sweet corn, it’s not harvested until the kernels are dry. Field corn is used to feed livestock, make the renewable fuel ethanol and thousands of other bio-based products like carpet, make-up or aspirin.

Sweet corn is harvested when the kernels are soft and sweet, making it ideal for eating. If you grab an ear of field corn and try to take a bite, you’ll probably break your teeth. It’s hard and dry (and only tastes good to cows, chickens, pigs, turkeys and some wild animals).

One bushel of field corn weighs 56 pounds, and if it isn’t used directly for livestock feed, it is likely to be exported or made into ethanol that is used to fuel your car. Each bushel produces 2.8 gallons of ethanol, 18 pounds of dried distillers grains (a high protein livestock feed), 14 pounds of corn gluten pellets, 1.8 pounds of corn oil and 17 pounds of carbon dioxide (used in dry ice, the beverage industry, water treatment facilities and other applications). The remaining field corn crop is used to make other food products, manufactured goods, exported to other countries and put into storage.