A Brief History of the Corn Refining Industry

17stoneThe corn wet milling industry has been an integral component of American manufacturing for more than 150 years. As the industry grew from one small mill to a thriving group of corn refining companies, industry leaders formed the Associated Manufacturers of Products from Corn in 1913.

In the 1930s, the group was renamed the Corn Industries Research Foundation recognizing the major contribution being made by the group to development of starch chemistry and technology.

In 1966, the group was renamed the Corn Refiners Association reflecting the broad diversity of products produced by the industry. As the organization celebrates its 100th anniversary, it is a time to reflect on the legacy of the corn wet milling industry. Many hard-working, imaginative, innovative individuals helped build the industry — developing and perfecting products made from corn — transforming it into starches, sweeteners, fuel alcohol, oil, and bioproducts with a growing range of end uses.

Today, refined corn ingredients offer significant functional characteristics enabling a wide range of products that enrich consumers’ lives in a myriad of ways. Corn refining began in the United States around the time of the civil war with the development of the process for corn starch hydrolysis. Prior to this time, the main sources for starch had been wheat and potatoes.

In 1844, the Wm. Colgate & Company wheat starch plant in Jersey City, N.J., became the first dedicated corn starch plant in the world. By 1857, the corn starch industry reached significant proportions in the U.S. Starch was the only product of the corn refining industry. Its largest customer was the laundry business. The next major event in the history of corn refining was the production of dextrose from corn starch in 1866.

This industrial application and subsequent developments in the chemistry of sugars served as early scientific links to a growing body of starch technology. Other product developments in corn sweeteners took place more than 15 years later with the first manufacture of refined corn sugar or anhydrous sugar in 1882. Around the same time, the industry also began to realize the value of the non-starch parts of corn.

Fiber, germ, and protein from the corn had simply been discarded until manufacturers discovered they could turn them into valuable animal feed ingredients. Corn gluten feed was first manufactured in 1882. The industry then discovered that corn oil could be extracted from the germ. The first commercial production of corn oil took place in 1889. Then in 1893, the industry began to recover the steepwater used to release the starch in the refining process and condense it to use in feed products.

Major strides in starch chemistry and the introduction of modified food starches, as well as many important process refinements took place in the early 1900's. In 1900, the manufacture of thin boiling starches was introduced and chlorinated starches were introduced about 15 years later. Corn syrup technology advanced significantly with the introduction of enzyme-hydrolyzed products.

In 1921, crystalline dextrose hydrate was introduced. Then in the mid-1950's, the technology for commercially preparing low conversion products such as maltodextrin and low DE syrups was developed. The purification and crystallization of dextrose meant for the first time that corn based sweeteners could compete in some markets that had been the sole domain of the sugar industry. The next developments involved enzyme catalyzed isomerization of dextrose to fructose. The first commercial shipment of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) took place in 1967.

The fructose content of the syrup was around 15 percent. Further research enabled the industry to develop a higher conversion and the first commercial shipment of HFCS-42 or 42 percent fructose syrup took place a year later. Further refinements in the process were developed in the late 1970's and by the mid 1980's, high fructose corn syrup became the sweetener of choice for the soft drink industry in the U.S. The production of ethanol by corn refiners began after World War II, but major quantities were not manufactured until the 1970's.

Several corn refiners began fermenting dextrose to make beverage and industrial alcohol. Corn refiners' entry into the fermentation business is key to some of the major changes the industry has seen in the past decade and will see in the future. The industry has developed an expertise in industrial microbiology. Today, starch, glucose, and dextrose are still core products of the wet milling industry.

But technology and research has significantly expanded the industry's product portfolio. Advances in process engineering and biotechnology have enabled refiners to open new markets in the food and industrial sectors. Over the past couple of decades major developments of the industry include:

  • New starch products including resistant starch and cyclodextrins
  • Specialty, low-calorie sweeteners such as sorbitol and mannitol
  • Food and feed additives such as vitamins and amino acids
  • Organic acids for industrial and food use
  • Corn-based biodegradable polymers that can be turned into plastics, fabrics and fibers

Corn refiners will continue this dynamic product evolution by combining technologies rooted in the history of the industry with new technologies from outside the industry to create new markets and greater product diversity.