Is Corn a Vegetable, a Fruit or a Grain? Here's What a Dietitian Has to Say

Corn season is here! The first thing you need to know about this summertime staple is ... well, what it is, anyway. Here, a registered dietitian breaks it all down—and the answer might surprise you.

an ear of corn on a designed background
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Did you know the U.S. is the leading corn consumer worldwide, with an annual corn consumption of more than 12 billion bushels? While much of that is used for making ethanol or for animal feed, we do eat a lot of it, whether it's in the form of corn on the cob, as popcorn or as an additive, such as high-fructose corn syrup, in processed foods.

Honestly, there's a lot of confusion around corn—namely, what type of food it is. Is corn a vegetable? Is corn a fruit? Is corn a grain? How do you count it in your meals when you're aiming to make a healthy meal?

Keep reading to find out exactly what it is. And guess what: the answer will probably surprise you.

Is Corn a Fruit, Vegetable or Grain?

Spoiler: Corn is actually a combination of all three. Corn is a fruit, a grain and a vegetable.

Botanically speaking, corn is a fruit. It is produced from the flower or the ovary of the corn plant.

Specifically, corn is classified as a caryopsis, a one-seeded fruit where the seed pod and the flesh are tightly joined together. Wheat is another example of an edible caryopsis, and indeed caryopses are commonly known as grains.

So, you might ask: If corn is a fruit, then why do we eat it as if it's a vegetable and a grain? Even the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans calls corn a starchy vegetable and, in the case of cornmeal and popcorn, lumps it into the whole-grain category. What gives?

The answer lies within the variety of corn and the time of harvest, which determines what corn is.

When corn ears of the sweet corn variety are reaped at their young and immature state, they have liquid-filled kernels that are soft and tender. In this case, these sweet corn kernels are considered a starchy vegetable. These are the typical corn varieties that you see in grocery stores and farmers' markets, where they are sold as corn on the cob but are also available as canned and frozen corn kernels.

However, the longer the harvest is delayed, the more mature the corn kernels become, and they become hard and dry. Popcorn is a corn variety harvested at this mature state and is classified as a grain. Corn at this mature stage is also milled into cornmeal to be incorporated into foods like tortillas.

Is Corn Healthy? Here's a Look at Corn Nutrition

Now that you know corn has multiple identities, you may wonder if corn is healthy, especially given its reputation, with many people doubting its nutritional value and health benefits.

If we look at corn in its natural form of whole corn kernels, it is nutritious.

Undoubtedly, corn is a starchy vegetable that provides more calories per serving than leafy green vegetables. However, you may be surprised that one medium ear of corn contains:

  • 90 calories
  • 3 g protein
  • 1 g fat
  • 20 g carbohydrate
  • 2 g fiber
  • 6.5 g sugars

Corn's most surprising stat may be its 6.5 grams of natural sugars, which is less than one-third of the amount of natural sugars present in a medium apple. Corn is also a moderate glycemic index food, which means the food is less likely to cause sudden spikes in blood sugar when eaten in moderation. Additionally, yellow corn also provides lutein and zeaxanthin, two antioxidants vital for healthy vision.

When it comes to popcorn, 1 cup of air-popped popcorn packs:

  • 31 calories
  • 1 g protein
  • 0 g fat
  • 6 g carbohydrate
  • 1 g fiber
  • 0 g sugars

Popcorn is considered a grain. With popcorn, you are eating the entire grain, with its bran, germ and endosperm intact, making it a whole grain. Milled corn products such as fine cornmeal, on the other hand, are not whole grains because the bran and the germ are removed during processing.

Is Corn Gluten-Free?

If you are avoiding gluten due to a sensitivity or diagnosed celiac disease, you may be concerned about the grains you eat. Rest assured that corn in its natural form, such as corn on the cob, corn kernels (fresh and frozen) and popcorn, is gluten-free. When you purchase processed corn products, such as cornmeal, masa corn, corn flour and cornstarch, read the ingredients list and the packaging. Doing so provides reassurance that the product is gluten-free and is made in a gluten-free facility to avoid cross contamination from other gluten-containing grains.

How to Enjoy Corn

Corn comes in a wide array of varieties and forms, making it a versatile food that can be part of many delicious recipes.

Corn on the cob is a summertime stable for a reason. Enjoy sweet corn by tossing it on the grill for summer cookouts with Grilled Corn on the Cob. Add corn kernels to a Fresh Sweet Corn Salad or Corn Chowder.

Sweet corn also makes a great side dish, like the Corn Pudding with Bacon & Rosemary or the Roasted Corn & Shiitake Mushrooms. Alternatively, use corn in mixed dishes, such as these Maryland Corn & Crab Cakes.

You can also use sweet corn in desserts. Sweet Corn Ice Cream is an indulgent treat for the summer.

And don't forget, popcorn is a nutritious whole-grain snack. Try this Cran-Walnut Kettle Corn for afternoon snacking.

Whole cornmeal can be enjoyed in various ways, too. Use it as a breading in this Cornmeal-Crusted Shrimp with Corn & Okra, or add it to dumplings, biscuits, bread, cakes and waffles. These Healthy Cornmeal Recipes will inspire you with endless creations in the kitchen.

Bottom Line

Corn is a nutritious food with multiple identities: it is technically a fruit but is consumed as both a vegetable and a grain. Check out these Healthy Corn Recipes and Healthy Corn Side Dish Recipes for more ideas and inspiration. Then get ready to embrace corn season.

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