18 Surprising, Everyday Items Made With Corn

Love it or hate it, Americans truly are a corn-fed people. Back under President Nixon, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz ended New Deal farming programs, provided subsidies so farmers could grow as much corn as they could at a government-supported loss, and shut down many family farms with his “get big or get out” mentality. Great swaths of the nation are now dedicated to growing corn — most of it inedible “Number Two” commodity corn, not ever meant to be food until being highly processed — in an unsustainable, more-is-more, monoculture-driven environment. As a result of this surplus of corn, we’ve come up with very interesting places to hide it.

We’re not just looking at the usual suspects here. It doesn’t take very much sleuthing to figure out what has cornstarch (pudding) or high fructose corn syrup (everything) or that your meat — primarily that from cows, pigs, and chickens — is fed with so much corn that you could eat nothing but meat and still have corn isotopes in your system. We’re looking at the stuff that needs a little more digging to uncover.

Whether you have corn allergies or a gluten sensitivity, you love corn and feel better about using it for everything, you dislike ingesting corn designed to burst the stomachs of insects, and survive pesticide/weed-killer baths in everything you eat, or you’re not the biggest fan of government programs and subsidies — this slideshow has something for everyone: a surprising look at just how much of your life involves corn.

*This is by no means a complete list.

Gasoline pump
Photo by Miguel Villagran/Getty Images

1. Gas and Oil

As a way to trim oil dependence in a post-9/11 world and use up all our excess corn, the federal government actually mandated that we started cutting our gasoline with ethanol, a corn-derived alcohol. Recently in the news because of a one-way-or-another face-off between Big Oil and Big Agro, the government had to decide if they were going to lessen the mandate from 10 percent to 4 percent ethanol or increase it to 15 percent ethanol. Considering that cars aren’t built to run efficiently on higher amounts of ethanol and that it’s seriously contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a reduction.

2. Gypsum Drywall

Chelation, which prevents mold on the drywall boards, is made with cornstarch.

3. Adhesives

From plywood glue to Elmer’s Naturals Gluesticks to envelopes, corn is in all of them. Natural glues like Elmer’s makes are produced from corn flour, whereas plywood glue is made from corn oil and envelope glue is made from nitrocellulose glue.

Source: Thinkstock
Source: Thinkstock

4. Cosmetics 

Looking at the ingredients of your makeup may reveal something called “zea mays.” Though it sounds a bit exotic, it’s actually the scientific name for corn. There are a number of ways corn is used in cosmetics: startch, oil, meal, powder, germ, extract, gluten protein, kernel, acid, glycerides, and potassium cornate. According to Cosmetics Infothey’re found in skin care, hair care, bath products, eye and facial makeup, lipsticks, and hair dyes.

Some examples of types of makeup containing corn:

  • Abrasives
  • Absorbents
  • Binders
  • Conditioners
  • Protectants
  • Cleansers
  • Powders
  • Water-based liquid makeup

5. Fresh Vegetables

What do carrots, celery, broccoli, and pre-cut potato products from your local supermarket all have in common? ICEIN, a corn-based “processing aid” made by Global Protein Products from zein, the principle protein in corn. It retards dehydration and oxydation, leaving the vegetables to appear fresher than they really are.

6. Wax paper and Waxed Cardboard

Similar to the coating on supermarket vegetables, wax paper and many wax-coated cardboard products are made from zein.

7. Bio-engineered Bone and Gum Tissue

Over the past few years, zein has gained popularity in the biomedical sphere as electrospun fibers become a scaffold of biocomposite for bone tissue engineering and treatment of periodontal disease.

Photo: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
Photo: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

8. Splenda and Equal

Thought you were escaping corn by not sweetening your sweets with corn syrup? Probably not. Both of these products contain maltodextrin, which is a corn product.

9. Hand Soap

Containing PEG-120 methyl glucose dioleate, citric acid, various colorants, and fragrances, all corn-derived additives — at least 25 percent of the ingredients in many hand soaps like Softsoap — contain corn.

10. Windex

This famous cleaner contains 2-Hexoxyethanol, acetic acid, ethanolamine, fragrance, and artificial colors — all of which are derived from corn.

11. Varnish

Ever wonder what gives varnish its luster? If you guessed it was a modified corn oil substance called alkyd, you’d be right!

toothbrush, toothpaste
Source: iStock

12. Toothpaste

Next time you brush your teeth, notice how much it doesn’t taste like soap. Between the flavoring and the sweetness that comes from sorbitol, a corn glucose derivative, you can beat plaque with sweet, minty freshness. If you don’t brush your teeth, you can always treat your out-of-control gum disease with that zein tissue.

13. Matches

Cornstarch is a common ingredient in the production of matchsticks, and sticks formed from paper rather than wood include corn products that increase rigidity.

14. Paving Bricks

Many paving bricks and other cement products are made with calcium stearate, a white, waxy powder used for waterproofing and to stop the bricks from forming puffy salt secretions.

15. Coated Aspirin

That sweet-ish coating on your pain killers is called cellulose acetate phthalate. Since that last word looks like something out of an H.P. Lovecraft novel, most people abbreviate it to CAP. This coating is responsible for the timed release of the medicine as well as easy gulping. CAP is actually almost completely resistant to stomach acid, but will break down in the intestines.

Source: Thinkstock
Source: Thinkstock

16. Tires, Jelly Beans, Licorice, and Molded Plastics

What do all of these have in common? Why, they’re a pain to pop out of the mold they were made in! Saving the day and making corn a seriously necessary component to your car (gas, spark plugs, tires), candy (H.F.C.S., flavoring, colorants), and molded plastics (many now made from corn processed into plastic instead of petroleum), powdered cornstarch is used to coat the molds so the products pop right out after they’re finished being molded.

17. Spark Plugs

So it turns out that when cornstarch is heated, some of its crystalline structures harden and become insulators that protect the ceramic in spark plugs from the high heat and acid solvents in your engine.

18. Diapers

Now that we’ve progressed past the 1980s when cellulose-based polymers were in vogue for diapers, we’ve turned to corn. Both normal and natural diapers use corn for its absorbent properties. Whereas natural diapers tend to use cornstarch to absorb your baby’s more unpleasant functions, conventional diapers are made from “the polymerization of acrylic acid blended with sodium hydroxide.” Acrylic acid is derived from ethylene, which is derived from corn.