Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Cultural Consquences of Corn Color

Corn meal in Africa is white.

Although the carotenoids that color yellow corn are great for human nutrition, they make make corn meal more susceptible to going rancid. On a hot continent with limited refrigeration, this is a real drawback. The same story has played out with rice - although many modern people enjoy the more complex taste* and greater nutrition of whole grain "brown" rice, "white" rice (free from the oily bran and germ) can be stored much more easily (especially in tropical climates). In both these cases, practical food choices have become entangled with deep cultural meaning over time. Although rice seems like a homogeneous commodity to most Westerners, many Asian cultures take great nationalistic and ethnic pride in "their" variety of white rice.

Corn meal in the United States is yellow because virtually all our corn varieties are yellow (whether for corn flakes or cows).** In many parts of Africa, however, yellow corn is exclusively used for animal feed. This pattern was likely established for practical storage reasons, but now many (especially more wealthy) Africans have a strong cultural preference for white corn. This apparently has caused some tense diplomatic moments as the U.S. offered donations of what was seen locally as animal feed...

My boss read that the same thing happened when the U.S. helped to rebuild Germany after WWII. Our corn-loving forefathers sent huge shipments of their favorite grain to a country that considered only wheat and barley to be fit for human consumption, apparently producing some very insulted and hurt East Germans who felt patronized by an arrogant U.S. that expected them to eat "animal feed."

*not me, yuck!
**it's easy to find white fresh sweet corn here, but the field corn (that's dried and processed into meal) is almost exclusively yellow


  1. Thanks for letting me know about the subtleties of corn color...it just may come in handy someday.

  2. I've heard about this in the context of developing even higher vitamin A corn breeds for Africa, that they were hoping, since the corn is now actually orange instead of yellow so maybe it wouldn't fall into the same cultural stereotypes (wouldn't help with the spoilage issue though).

  3. Hmm I think I may have heard that too. Hopefully between these new locally appropriate crops and China actually investing in Africa's infrastructure will help them pull themselves up.

  4. I seem to remember that the phytates in bran are responsible for locking up iron, calcium and zinc in the diet, possibly another reason for the popularity of white rice in cultures with limited diets.

    I had a Malawian friend who loved his "sima" - maize porridge. White maize, every time, none of that yellow animal fodder for him.

  5. Which all makes me wonder about golden rice -- should it ever make it to people, will they eat it? And will there be storage issues with it?

  6. Rhizowen
    Absolutely! I don't know about calcium, but I know phytates play a huge role binding iron and zinc in plant-based foods. For those of you who don't know - plants produce a lot of chemicals that bind minerals so tightly that the human digestive system can't extract them (meat doesn't present this difficulty)

    Those are good questions - as you know, these types of cultural misunderstandings caused a lot of the famous missteps in the first Green Revolution. Hopefully those involved are considering such things.

  7. Preferred corn color is a regional preference in the US also. If you ever come to the southeastern states, you will find that white corn and cornmeal are strongly preferred and that it is actually difficult to find yellow cornmeal in grocery stores.

  8. Thanks for the correction, SCgardeningnews!

    (Ag Biodiversity pointed out the same thing)

    I'm surprised I've never noticed this before. How widespread is it in the South? Is it more on the fringes or is it everywhere, including large cities with greater Northern influence, like Raleigh?

  9. Update: I just heard that one of my Dutch colleagues, prior to coming to the US always saw corn as "pig food."

  10. I was scanning the net to see if there is any info regarding the color of wheat breads, white or brown having any associations with colonialism?




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