What is the difference between “sweet” and “field” corn?

May 18, 2009 Print Friendly and PDF
Sweet corn comprises less than 5% of the total corn production in the United States. Sweet corn typically yields less than field corn and is less tolerant to pests and stress than field corn. Sweet corn, bred to for its sweet taste, is harvested when kernels at the milk stage are fairly high in moisture content. Field corn, bred to have starch for animal feed, is harvested when the kernels are hard and relatively dry. Sweet corn seed (kernels) will look shriveled and wrinkled. Field corn kernels are smooth. Almost all the sweet corn and field corn grown commercially in the United States is F-1 hybrids. They are 30 to 40 percent more productive than open-pollinated cultivars. Open-pollinated cultivars are still available for some heirloom cultivars and ornamental corn. Field corn is genetically dominant to sweet corn. When a pollen grain from field corn pollinates sweet corn, that kernel will develop into a starchy field corn kernel because of xenia (the immediate effect of the pollen parent on the appearance of the developing fruit). Each kernel is pollinated by a separate pollen grain which determines whether the kernel will be starchy or sweet.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.