How Corn Evolved from Inedible Wild Grass to a Global Staple

Corn isn’t just a staple on our plates—it’s a triumph of human ingenuity in agriculture. This ubiquitous grain has journeyed from its wild roots as a tenacious grass to become the backbone of civilizations and a culinary chameleon in our kitchens.

Here, we trace corn’s extraordinary evolution, revealing how this simple grain shaped history and continues to innovate our meals.

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Image Credit: ArtMari/Shutterstock.

Nine thousand years ago, the ancestor of modern corn was not the robust, kernel-packed cob we know today. It was teosinte, a wild grass native to southern Mexico, bearing little resemblance to contemporary corn.

Teosinte’s cobs were minuscule, with just 5 to 12 hard, indigestible kernels. For a long time, the link between teosinte and corn baffled scientists, sparking debates that lasted nearly half a century. This period ended when genetic evidence irrefutably identified teosinte as the sole ancestor of modern corn.1

The Transformation of Corn

The cultivation of teosinte began around the Balsas River Valley, not for its kernels but for the sweet juice in its stalks, akin to sugarcane. The initial cultivation likely focused on producing a fermented beverage from this juice.2

However, a pivotal shift occurred when ancient cultivators started selecting teosinte variants with softer glumes (the hard shell around the kernel) and higher starch content. This selective breeding was the cornerstone of corn’s evolution.

The transformation from teosinte to corn involved increasing the kernel count, developing a sturdy cob, and boosting the nutritional value of the kernels.

Corn’s Nutritional Shortcomings

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Image Credit: Jason Kasumovic/Shutterstock.

Despite these advancements, corn lacked certain nutrients, making it one of the least nutritious staple crops. Its abundance of starch provided calories, but many of its nutrients were not readily absorbable by the human body. This nutritional gap was a significant hurdle, as corn was becoming a fundamental part of the human diet, especially in Mesoamerica.

Nixtamalization & Nutritional Renaissance

The pre-Colombian Mesoamericans revolutionized the nutritional profile of corn through nixtamalization, a process involving cooking corn kernels in an alkaline solution, typically lime. This method not only softened the kernels and enhanced their flavor but also significantly improved their nutritional value.3

Nixtamalization led to partial starch gelatinization, partial lipid saponification, and the solubilization of proteins surrounding the starch granules. These changes not only improved the rheological and textural properties of corn-based food products but also increased the bioavailability of crucial nutrients, particularly niacin (vitamin B3), essential for energy production, fat synthesis, and DNA repair.

This transformative process marked a significant turning point, making corn a sustainable staple food capable of supporting large populations.

Corn’s Expansion & Niacin Deficiency Crisis

As Europeans encountered corn in Mesoamerica, they quickly adopted it as a staple crop, but crucially, they did not adopt the nixtamalization process. 

The lack of nixtamalization in European corn preparation led to widespread niacin deficiency, resulting in the emergence of pellagra. This disease, characterized by diarrhea, skin rashes, mouth sores, and dementia, highlighted the importance of nixtamalization in preventing nutritional deficiencies.

The oversight of this critical process underscored the intricate relationship between agricultural practices and human health, demonstrating how a gap in cultural knowledge can have profound health consequences.

Corn’s Enduring Impact on Our Diets

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Image Credit: Pressmaster/Shutterstock.

Today, corn’s journey from an inedible grass to a cornerstone of human nutrition is a testament to the ingenuity and perseverance of ancient cultivators. Their efforts to domesticate and enhance this crop have left an indelible mark on our diets and culinary traditions.

As we savor corn in its myriad forms, from tortillas to corn on the cob, it’s worth reflecting on the remarkable journey of this staple food and the countless coincidences that brought it to our plates.

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Sources:
  1. https://www.nativeseeds.org/pages/teosinte
  2. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/rethinking-corny-history-maize-180971038/
  3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/food-science/nixtamalization
Martha A. Lavallie
Martha A. Lavallie
Author & Editor | + posts

Martha is a journalist with close to a decade of experience in uncovering and reporting on the most compelling stories of our time. Passionate about staying ahead of the curve, she specializes in shedding light on trending topics and captivating global narratives. Her insightful articles have garnered acclaim, making her a trusted voice in today's dynamic media landscape.