Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

September 8, 2013

ED VASICEK: American corn: Grain, fruit and carbohydrate

Classification depends a bit upon its usage


Kokomo Tribune

---- — We are near-ing the time of year when we celebrate the harvest. Many of us will make a trek to the orchard to stock up on apples. Others of us are enjoying the final ears of corn, while yet others are trying to give away tomatoes, zucchini and peppers.

I am grateful for those tomatoes, zucchini and sweet peppers. Between various soil wilts, powdery mildew and ravenous insects, my garden produced next to nothing. Next year, it is going to be resistant varieties only!

My crop failure reminded me to appreciate America’s farmers. If we depended upon our own ability to garden, folks like me would be an endangered species!

I probably did not tend my garden well because this summer was a busy one for us. We were so busy, at times we ate TV dinners. This is something Vasiceks do not do; I have only had a handful of them over the last 35 years or so. My, how they have shrunk! I also was disappointed by their lack of balance. Some of them, for example, featured potatoes for a carb and corn for a vegetable. Although corn is technically a fruit, it is nutritionally considered a starchy vegetable, like potatoes. I was double-carbed.

Don’t get me wrong; I love corn. Both our son and daughter were in Kokomo this summer, and they longed for Indiana corn; we made many trips to the corn stand.

The word “corn” was originally an old English term meaning “grain” or “a head of grain.” Common corns were wheat, barley and rice. Maize is one particular “corn,” and Americans began interchanging these terms until finally “maize” became “corn,” and other grains were no longer “corn.” The rest of the world calls corn “maize.”

Why did I say corn is a fruit? The confusion between fruit, vegetables and grain is perennial. The reason for this is simple: The world of science and the world of culinary nutrition are two distinct worlds. Thus corn is nutritionally a starchy vegetable and should be considered a carbohydrate, but scientifically, it is a fruit. To make matters more complex, if the kernels are dried, corn becomes a grain (still a carbohydrate). Immature baby corn is consumed cob and all, and is considered a high-fiber vegetable.

Jennifer Nelson, of the Mayo Clinic, enlightens us about the scientific difference between fruit and vegetables: “... a fruit is the part of the plant that develops from a flower. It’s also the section of the plant that contains the seeds. The other parts of plants are considered vegetables. These include the stems, leaves and roots — and even the flower bud.”

Nelson surprises us by listing “vegetables” that are technically fruit: avocado, beans, pea pods, corn kernels, cucumbers, grains, nuts, olives, peppers, pumpkin, squash, sunflower seeds and tomatoes. In contrast, vegetables include celery, lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, beets, carrots and potatoes.

Fortunately produce departments, chefs, and the folks next door are more concerned about the practical use of produce. Thus, as Nelson points out: “From a culinary standpoint, vegetables are less sweet — or more savory — and served as part of the main dish. Fruits are more sweet and tart and are most often served as a dessert or snack.”

Most of us know fruits and vegetables are good for us. They fight cancer, provide fiber and are an amazing source of vitamins and minerals. We are likely to be healthier if we eat a generous amount of fruit and veggies, yet Americans are eating less of them. Nelson continues, “Between 1999 and 2008, the actual number of servings of fruit and vegetables declined by about 10 percent and 7 percent, respectively.” Ouch.

So what about grains? Grains are technically fruit, but nutritionally carbohydrate (and protein). Joe Pastry explains: “Grains are the seeds of grasses ... Given that corn’s wild ancestor, teosinte, is a grass, that makes corn a grain in the eyes of many people.”

See, I told you: Those TV dinner people were doing double carbohydrates! Bottom line: A balanced meal is one with protein, a carbohydrate and a non-starchy vegetable, even if that vegetable is technically a fruit.

Ed Vasicek is pastor of Highland Park Church and a weekly contributor to the Kokomo Tribune. Contact him at edvasicek@gmail.com.