Most corn processors and consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies associate genetically modified (GM) high alpha-amylase corn with ethanol production. That association was true five years ago, but times have changed, and corn processors and CPG companies must be aware of a new risk profile this corn poses to their operations. High alpha-amylase corn production is growing by double digits each year in part due to its adoption as cattle feed.
The risk of cross pollination and cross contact has been growing in areas where both food-grade corn and GM corn intended for ethanol or livestock feed are planted. This growth has correlated with rise in the frequency of processing and product quality issues at major corn processors across the U.S. related to high alpha-amylase corn.
Corn processors and CPG manufacturers who want to keep their clients happy by supplying quality products are dealing with this new challenge by adopting new preventive controls that include implementing inbound corn testing.
High Alpha-Amylase Corn Adoption
The high level of alpha-amylase content in GM corn acts as a catalyst in breaking down complex starch into smaller chains called dextrins. The effect is demonstrated to be highly beneficial in saving time and energy when converting corn starch to sugar for ethanol manufacture, but there are also claims that it drives digestibility and efficiency in cattle feed. As a result, high alpha-amylase corn is an innovative, specialized value proposition benefiting both ethanol and cattle feed production. These applications account for 90% of domestic corn use, according to USDA.
This value proposition for cattle feed is proving to be very successful. The cattle feed application for this corn first introduced in 2018 has witnessed dramatic adoption, with double-digit growth in sales of all high alpha-amylase corn seed in 2021. As a result, high alpha-amylase corn farms are no longer concentrated geographically only near ethanol plants. They are now all over the U.S. in every corn-growing region. With this growth in corn farms, the cross-contact risk is growing every year. Wind and weather, as well as shared equipment, storage, and transport, can all lead to high alpha-amylase corn contamination and product issues.
What Millers Should Know about High Alpha-Amylase Corn
For corn processors, there is a consequential side effect of the alpha-amylase produced in this GM corn when it mixes with their food-grade corn. All of the extra starch-digesting enzyme inherent in the GM variety does not simply dissipate during the milling process but remains intact in the individual fractions of the milled corn, whether wet milled or dry. The enzyme laced into the milled product can reach optimal activity rate when it is being processed at elevated temperatures during the cooking process. The result is accelerated, unintended starch breakdown, which causes product quality issues.
The enzyme sometimes remains active even after the food product is packed. The nature of the enzyme, which acts as a powerful catalyst that is not consumed in the starch hydrolysis process, results in carbohydrates continuously disintegrating into sugar to a point of dysfunction. This has been responsible for disastrous results in the real world, with processors citing issues that include:
- Sticky or fragile tortillas;
- Crumbly chips and cornbread;
- Soupy and runny corn grits; and
- Non-binding tamales.
The high overlap of high alpha-amylase corn growth areas and U.S. milling capacity poses significant risk to the food-grade corn that millers buy and, in turn, ship to their customers. Up until recently, however, the milling industry has been hesitant and skeptical about the need for testing for high alpha-amylase corn. Elevators, distributors, and operations managers fear that additional testing steps will disrupt procurement operations in the middle of a labor shortage. Onsite quality managers also have limited awareness of high alpha-amylase corn testing in root cause analyses for quality concerns.