Home » Popcorn vs Corn: 7 Key Differences You Need to Know

Popcorn vs Corn: 7 Key Differences You Need to Know

by klarsen28@gmail.com
Popped popcorn and popcorn kernels vs a plate with 3 corn on the cobs.

When it comes to snacking, few foods are as beloved as popcorn and corn. Both are versatile ingredients that can be used in a variety of dishes, but they also make for tasty standalone snacks. While popcorn may seem like the clear winner when it comes to popularity, corn has its own unique set of benefits and uses.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at popcorn vs corn and explore the pros and cons of each one. Whether you’re a die-hard popcorn fan or someone who prefers their corn on the cob, there’s plenty to learn about these two tasty treats!

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What is Popcorn?

Popcorn is a type of corn that is specially bred and processed for popping. Unlike regular corn, popcorn has a hard outer shell and a starchy interior that allows it to burst open when heated, making it a popular snack food that can be flavored with various seasonings, such as salt, butter, caramel, or cheese. Popcorn is also used in movie theaters, sports arenas, and carnivals, where it’s sold in large bags or containers.

What is Corn?

Corn is a cereal grain that has been cultivated for thousands of years. It’s one of the most widely grown and consumed crops in the world, especially in the Americas, where it originated. Corn can be used in many ways, including eaten fresh or dried, ground into flour, used to make tortillas, chips, and snacks, or fed to livestock.

A bowl of popcorn.

7 Differences Between Popcorn and Corn

  1. Variety: Popcorn is a specific variety of corn known for its ability to pop, while corn refers to the broader category of corn plants cultivated for various purposes.
  2. Physical Characteristics: Popcorn kernels are small, hard, and have a moisture-resistant hull, enabling them to explode and “pop” when heated. Corn kernels, on the other hand, are larger, softer, and have a higher moisture content.
  3. Taste and Texture: Popcorn has a distinct, crunchy texture and a nutty flavor when popped. Corn, depending on the variety, can have a range of flavors and textures, from sweet to starchy and from tender to firm.
  4. Nutrition: Popcorn is low in calories and fat, making it a popular choice for health-conscious individuals. Corn is also a good source of folate, vitamin C, and dietary fiber, providing essential nutrients for maintaining overall health.
  5. In Cooking: Popcorn is often enjoyed as a standalone snack, flavored with various seasonings like butter, salt, or cheese. Corn, in its various forms, is used in a wide variety of dishes, including soups, salads, tortillas, cornbread, and more.
  6. Shelf Life: Popcorn, due to its lower moisture content, has a longer shelf life compared to corn. Popcorn can be stored for extended periods without losing its popping ability or flavor. In contrast, fresh corn has a relatively short shelf life and is typically consumed soon after harvesting or preserved through canning or freezing methods.
  7. Growing and harvesting: Popcorn thrives in drier conditions while corn adapts to diverse climates. Popcorn is harvested when the kernels are fully matured and dried for popping, while sweet corn is harvested earlier in its milky stage for a sweeter taste.

Read on to learn more about all the differences between popcorn and corn!

Brief History of Popcorn and Corn

Old fashioned popcorn sign.


The exact origins of popcorn unclear, but it’s believed to have been first discovered and cultivated by indigenous peoples in the Americas over 5,000 years ago. Native American tribes held a deep appreciation for popcorn, using it not only as a delicious treat but also as an adornment for their decorations and an integral part of their ceremonial practices. As European explorers encountered popcorn during their journeys, its popularity gradually spread worldwide.

In the late 19th century, the invention of commercial popcorn machines revolutionized the way people enjoyed this snack, making it more accessible to a wider audience. In the early 20th century, popcorn became a popular snack in movie theaters and remains a favorite snack food to this day.


Corn, also known as maize, has a rich heritage that spans thousands of years. It originated in the Americas and played a pivotal role in the agriculture, economy, and cultural practices of indigenous civilizations. Native American tribes cultivated diverse varieties of corn, using it as a staple food source and integrating it into their rituals and customs.

With the arrival of European explorers, corn made its way across the globe, becoming a significant crop in many countries. Today, corn is cultivated on a large scale worldwide, serving as a versatile ingredient in a wide range of culinary creations, animal feed, industrial applications, and even biofuels.

The Differences Explained

Bowl of stovetop popcorn and popcorn kernels in a jar.

1. Variety

Popcorn and corn are often confused with each other, but they are two distinct varieties of the same plant species – Zea mays. While corn is typically grown for its kernels, popcorn is a unique variety of corn that is specifically cultivated for its popping ability.

Butterfly and mushroom popcorn.

Popcorn Varieties

Popcorn comes in various varieties, with each variety having its own unique characteristics. The most common popcorn varieties are Butterfly, Mushroom, and Hulless. Butterfly popcorn is characterized by its light and fluffy texture and is commonly used in movie theaters. Mushroom popcorn, on the other hand, has a round, ball-like shape and is typically used for making caramel popcorn. Hulless popcorn has no hard outer shell, making it easier to digest.

Read more about the difference between mushroom and butterfly popcorn here!

Corn Varieties

Corn, also known as maize, is typically divided into two broad categories – sweet corn and field corn. Sweet corn is grown for human consumption and is typically consumed fresh, whereas field corn is mainly grown for animal feed and industrial uses.

There are several varieties of corn that fall under these categories, including dent corn, flint corn, and flour corn. Dent corn is the most commonly grown variety of field corn and is used for making cornmeal, grits, and livestock feed. Flint corn, also known as Indian corn, is commonly used for ornamental purposes due to its vibrant colors. Flour corn, as the name suggests, is used for making flour.

2. Physical Characteristics

Popcorn kernels.
  1. Size: Popcorn kernels are generally smaller in size compared to corn kernels. Popcorn kernels are typically around 5-7 millimeters in diameter, while corn kernels can vary in size depending on the variety, ranging from 8-15 millimeters or more.
  2. Shape: Popcorn kernels are usually round or slightly oblong in shape. On the other hand, corn kernels are generally plump and have a more pronounced elongated shape.
  3. Hardness: Popcorn kernels have a harder outer shell or hull, which helps contain the moisture inside. This hardness is essential for the kernels to explode and pop when heated. Corn kernels, while still firm, are not as hard as popcorn kernels.
  4. Moisture Content: Popcorn kernels have a lower moisture content compared to corn kernels. This lower moisture content is crucial for creating the necessary pressure buildup within the kernel during the popping process.
  5. Appearance: Popcorn kernels typically have a uniform color, ranging from pale yellow to white, although other varieties with different colors also exist. Corn kernels, on the other hand, can display a wider range of colors, including yellow, white, red, blue, or multicolored varieties.

Read more about hulless popcorn here!

3. Taste & Texture

Family eating popcorn together from a bowl.

When it comes to taste, popcorn and corn have distinct flavors that appeal to different tastes.


  • Crunchy, light, fluffy
  • Salty or sweet
  • Buttered or plain


  • Sweet or savory
  • Tender, crunchy, juicy
  • Boiled, grilled, roasted, or baked

Popcorn is a classic movie snack that can be enjoyed sweet or salty, buttered or plain. It has a light, crunchy texture that is often described as “fluffy.” It is a popular snack food because of its satisfying texture and ability to hold flavorings like salt and butter.

Corn, on the other hand, has a sweet or savory taste and can have a variety of textures depending on how it is prepared. Boiled or steamed corn is typically tender and juicy, while grilled or roasted corn has a smoky flavor and crispy texture.

4. Nutrition

Ears of corn and other vegetables.

When it comes to nutrition, both popcorn and corn have their own unique set of benefits. Let’s take a closer look at their nutritional values.


  • High in fiber
  • Low in calories
  • Contains antioxidants
  • Gluten-free


  • High in fiber
  • Contains vitamins B and C
  • Good source of carbohydrates
  • Contains antioxidants

Popcorn and corn both offer health benefits, but they differ in some key aspects. Popcorn is lower in calories, making it a good option for those watching their weight. It’s also gluten-free, which is beneficial for individuals with gluten sensitivities.

On the other hand, corn is higher in fiber, supporting healthy digestion. It’s also a good source of essential vitamins and minerals like vitamin C, potassium, and folate.

So, if you’re looking for a low-calorie and gluten-free snack, popcorn is a great choice, while corn provides more fiber and important nutrients for overall health.

Is popcorn healthier than chips? Find out the answer here!

5. In Cooking

Plates with corn on the cob on them.


  • Snack
  • Buttered
  • Caramel
  • Trail mix
  • Popcorn balls
  • Baked goods


  • Corn on the cob
  • Soups
  • Salads
  • Tortillas
  • Polenta
  • Cornbread

Popcorn is mainly enjoyed as a snack and is commonly seasoned with salt, butter, caramel, cheese, or other flavorings. It’s a popular treat enjoyed while watching movies, at carnivals and parties. It can be made on the stovetop in a pot or using specialized popcorn machines. Popcorn is also used to create sweet or savory snacks like popcorn balls, trail mix, and even used in baking to add a unique texture and flavor to cookies, cakes, and bars.

Corn is extremely versatile and is a staple ingredient in many cuisines around the world. Fresh corn, often known as sweet corn, can be boiled, grilled, steamed, or incorporated into salads, salsas, and soups. The kernels can be used in a variety of dishes, such as cornbread, fritters and casseroles. Corn flour is used for making tortillas, cornbread and polenta. Cornstarch is a popular thickening agent in sauces, gravies, and desserts. Corn can also be processed into corn oil, corn syrup, and various corn-based snacks.

6. Shelf Life

Bowls of different flavors of popcorn.

Popcorn generally has a longer shelf life compared to corn. Due to its lower moisture content and protective hull, popcorn can last indefinitely when stored properly. Unpopped popcorn kernels should be stored in a cool, dry place, such as an airtight container. Over time, the popcorn may lose some of its moisture, affecting its popping ability and resulting in less fluffy popcorn. Therefore, for the best taste and quality, it is recommended to consume popcorn within a year or so.

Read more about whether popcorn expires and how to store popcorn here!

In contrast, the shelf life of corn can vary depending on the type and how it is stored. Fresh corn, such as sweet corn on the cob, has a relatively short shelf life. It’s best to consume fresh corn within a few days to a week of harvesting to enjoy its optimal taste and texture. If refrigerated, fresh corn can last for up to a week. For longer-term storage, corn can be preserved through methods like canning or freezing. Canned corn typically has a shelf life of one to two years when stored in a cool, dark place. Frozen corn can maintain its quality for up to 8-12 months when properly stored in the freezer.

7. Growing and Harvesting

Corn field on a sunny day.

Popcorn and corn have different growing conditions. Popcorn thrives in drier environments with well-drained soil, needing warm weather and a longer growing season. Corn, on the other hand, adapts to various climates worldwide. It requires moderate rainfall, full sun exposure, and fertile, well-drained soil with adequate nutrients. Different corn varieties are tailored to specific regions and climates.

Popcorn is harvested when the kernels have fully matured and dried on the cob. The ears are hung out to dry before removing the kernels. In contrast, the harvest time for corn depends on its purpose. Sweet corn, meant for fresh consumption, is picked in the milky stage when the kernels are tender. Field corn, used for animal feed or industrial purposes, is harvested when the kernels are fully mature and dry. Dent corn, known for its starchy properties, is gathered when the kernels show a small indentation at the crown.


When it comes to popcorn and corn, they may be related, but they’re definitely not the same. Popcorn steals the show with its popping magic, thanks to its tough hull and fluffy insides. Meanwhile, corn has its own game going on with a wide variety of uses, from satisfying our taste buds to feeding animals and fueling industries. Understanding these differences helps us appreciate the unique traits and versatility of both popcorn and corn within the Zea mays family.

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