Photo: HarvestPlus (flickr)
Soon you may see another color of corn on the tables at your local farmers market. Researchers at Purdue University are working with orange corn to build up vitamin A levels and hopefully fight childhood blindness in Africa.
Ears For The Eyes
Torbert Rocheford, the Patterson Endowed Chair of Translational Genomics and professor of agronomy at Purdue, led the study. He says in parts of Africa people eat three meals a day that come from ground corn. “In the last 30-40 years, our diets have become less diverse in parts of the world – they eat more cereals.”
It’s the carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, that give orange corn its vibrant color. The body converts the carotenoids into vitamin A in the digestion process.
Other foods high in beta-carotene, like carrots, just don’t grow well in parts of the world with malnutrition and lack of calories. That, and corn is much cheaper than fruits and vegetables. “So, if you’re on a subsistence living situation, you tend to buy corn and grain at the market place because you can feed your kids with it.”
The Natural Way
Something to emphasize, Rocheford says, is that this is not a genetically modified organism (GMO). Researchers are simply breeding natural variations of corn for enhanced nutrients, something the Aztecs and Mayan had been doing for millennia.
“And that’s a big part of my research, because in Africa there’s no country that has the bio-safety regulatory approval process to let GMOs come in.”
According to the World Health Organization, nearly one and a half million children in the world today are blind, and about 75% of them live in the poorest countries of Africa and Asia. Children in these parts of the world are most affected by a vitamin A deficiency.
Rocheford says American eaters would benefit from this high-vitamin orange corn as well. It‘s associated with something called zeaxanthin, which is a xanthophyll found in parts of the eye like the retina and macula. “The U.S. population is actually somewhat deficient in xanthophylls and that leads to an increase in macular degeneration,” he says. “You can prevent it through good diet, but once you have it, there’s nothing you can do.”
From The Field To The Table
Orange corn would be new to Africa, where most people eat the white variety. It would be new to the yellow corn-eating U.S. population as well. The orange variety is prevalent in northern Italy (where they use it in polenta), Uruguay, Paraguay and the Caribbean.
Another goal of the research, according to Rocheford, is to get orange corn seeds into the hands of small growers or organic farmers in the U.S. Unlike most corn that is grown in this country, orange corn is meant for human consumption. “You haven’t it seen it yet in local farmers markets, but you will see it in maybe a couple years.”
Tasting The Difference?
But what about the taste? Though there has been no formal taste test, Rocheford says he likes the taste better than yellow corn. “Carotenoids are aromatic, and they do impart flavor,” he says. Carotenoids also give some of the flavor to port wine.
“What we’re excited about is if young children in Africa grow up eating orange corn and the flavor is better or distinct, then they get used to that and that’s what they want to eat.”
And for American eaters who love corn on the cob, Rocheford is hoping to develop yellow and orange segregating sweet corn.
More: Listen to Torbert Rocheford talk about his work with orange corn in the podcast.
- Orange corn holds promise for reducing blindness, child death (Purdue University)
- Global prevalence of vitamin A deficiency in population at risk: 1995-2005 (World Health Organization)