University of the Philippines Los Baños

Corn had been touted as a “poor man’s rice” for years. The rice shortage in the 1960s that forced many Filipinos to eat inferior rice mixed with rough corn grits left a harsh memory. Except probably in the Visayas, where white corn is a staple food of 14 million or 20 percent of the population, many Filipinos will eat corn as rice only if there is no rice.

No wonder then that Congressman Manny Pacquiao, who grew up in the Visayas, was chosen by the Department of Agriculture (DA) to ‘champion’ the eating of white corn in the country. The world boxing hero “ate ground white corn as a substitute of rice and fish” when he was a kid.

His stamina, like other athletes, is said to be boosted by eating corn. Nutty and slow to digest, white corn contains protein (3.2 grams) and minerals such as manganese, magnesium, copper, and zinc. It also has fiber, fat, folate, iron, niacin, and phosphorus.

So when he brandishes on video (YouTube): “This is the food of champions like me. Let’s eat corn for a stronger and healthier body!” that hits like a powerful jab.

Through sheer perseverance and true grit, Pacman, who is a high school dropout, finished college (and even got an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humanities), won as a world boxing champion, got elected as a Congressman of Sarangani province, and snagged Time Magazine’s title as “one of the world’s most influential people for 2009.”

Like Pacman transforming from a provincial boy into a worldclass fighter, plant breeders from the Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB) of the Crop Science Cluster, College of Agriculture have also been transforming white corn. They have developed QPM (Quality protein Maize) Var 6, a variety that contains high-protein for feeding poor malnourished children and with traits that can sustain a healthy lifestyle for athletes and health buffs.

Quality Protein Maize: Bred to be a Fighter

The QPM Var 6, also called High Lysine and Tryptophan Corn, was bred by the team of Dr. Artemio M. Salazar in IPB starting in the 2000s. Dr. Art headed the IPB’s cereals breeding program as well as the Crop Science Cluster of the College of Agriculture.

“We acquired the Quality Protein Maize (QPM) parentals from Mexico through the Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz (CIMMYT) because we found out that it improved the nutritional status and health of poor Africans. We just basically improved the materials in terms of adaptation to local growing conditions,” Dr. Art explained.

QPM Var 6, developed in 2006, contains 66.2 percent more lysine than the normal white corn. It has 0.374 grams compared to the 0.225 grams in white corn. It also has more tryptophan. “Normal white corn lacks the essential amino acids, lysine, and tryptophan,” he said. The variety also has higher protein content. Protein is needed to balance the often high carbohydrate intake most marginalized families take because they can not afford viands (or ulam).

Further, the QPM also has more dietary fiber, minerals, and antioxidants than rice alone, said Dr. Wilma Hurtada, a food scientist from the Institute of Human Nutrition and Food (IHNF) of the College of Human Ecology (CHE). She experimented on the best ratio or blend of rice and corn grits of QPM Var 6 that would taste like rice and be acceptable to consumers.

“Because of its higher amylose, QPM Var 6 has lower glycemic index. What’s the importance of low GI? Carbohydrates in corn break down slowly, releasing glucose gradually into the blood stream, hence it can lessen the risk of diabetes,” she pointed out.

Further, Low GI food is a slow releasing fuel for the muscles, hence, delaying hunger pangs and helping reduce the weight of overweight people. Hence, some nutritionists say that Filipino boxers should eat corn because it can extend their endurance.

Those who would benefit most from eating the QPM Var 6 for its high protein and amino acids are malnourished children, pointed out Dr. Hurtada. “Many children are underweight because of inadequate food due to poverty. According to the survey of the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI), underweight children aged 6-10 years increased to about 2.6 million from 2005 to 2008,” she said.

Aside from its nutritional values, QPM Var 6 has benefits for the ordinary farmers. Dr. Art points out that “It is an open pollinated variety (OPV), hence farmers can save their seeds for the next season and not buy seeds every time they need to plant.”

He also mentioned the relatively high yields compared to other corn varieties - 5.84 tons per hectare in Luzon, 5.45 in the Visayas, and 4.47 in Mindanao. A farmer can harvest in 105 days during the dry season or in 100 days during the wet season. Further, the variety is resistant to diseases such as rust and stalk rot. The shelling recovery from the cobs is 76 percent.

Another important trait is that corn needs less water than rice, hence easing the pressure on our irrigation needs. “I observed rice shortages, and rice was becoming an expensive commodity during that time. This was an opportunity to show that corn could be the staple food,” he said.

Corn Grits: Poor Man’s Rice to Winner Food

To eat QPM Var 6, the corn kernels are first milled into corn grits. And the best mix of rice and corn, based on the many taste tests of Dr. Hurtada’s team, is 70 percent rice mixed with 30 percent corn grits. They call this the rice-corn blend, and it tastes and looks like pure rice.

“Cooking is not so different. We just add a little more water – 1.5 cups of water to 1 cup rice blend . But first, soak the rice-corn blend in water for at least 15 minutes before cooking,” she advised.

Dr. Hurtada worked closely with IPB chemist, Felicito Rodriguez, on the chemistry and nutritional content of the rice-corn blend. They even devised various recipes for the blend and for the corn starch.

Dr. Art also kept the small farmers in mind about the milling of corn grits. In 2008, his team collaborated with Engr. Balbino C. Geronimo of the College of Engineering and Agro-Industrial Technology (CEAT) for the design of a portable mini corn-miller that can be operated by a cooperative for instance, or even by women, especially in the uplands. The grit size of the white corn is crucial to allow it to cook well with rice, said Dr. Hurtada. According to reports, the DA, through its Agri Pinoy Corn Program (APCP), is allocating around Php 1 million per region to buy and distribute the mini rice corn mill so that more farmers can produce corn grits.

Engr. Geronimo said that the machine can mill 150 kilograms of grains per hour with 64.8 percent recovery. “In one day, the mill can generate corn grits enough to feed more than 1,000 people at 300 grams per person consumption per day.”

Promoting the planting of seeds and the eating of the rice corn blend went hand-in-hand. The DA, a long-time partner of IPB-CA, poured funds into the project to produce and distribute IPB Var6 seeds around the country as well as to promote it in multimedia platforms. White corn was included in the Food Staples Sufficiency Program of the DA to mitigate rice importation.

Team QPM: Promoting the Rice-Corn Blend

The QPM team got a boost when the DA regional office was able to get Congressman Pacquiao (Pacman) to endorse the eating of white corn as healthy food in a video produced by DA – for free.

“Madaling i-promote para kay Manny Pacquaio ang mais kasi talagang kumakain siya nito,” pointed out Ms. Lot Pua, the team’s development communication specialist. “Maraming nagtatanong: Bakit ako kakain ng mais e pang-hayop ‘yan?’ Iyan talaga ang gusto naming mawala sa mentality ng mga tao – na kawawa sila pag kakain ng mais.”

But as they say, the “test of the rice-corn blend is in the eating”. Hence, the QPM team also conducted feeding programs around Los Baños. Led by Dr. Hurtada, the team fed the ricecorn blend to more than a hundred children in different schools – Lopez Elementary School in 2007; San Antonio Elementary School in 2008; and at the BN Calara Elementary School from 2012 to 2013.

The team, together with a nutritionist, prepared a balanced meal plan for the children incorporating vegetables and fish or meat in their daily lunch.

“After the feeding programs, the children gained weight by 1 kilo or more,” Dr. Hurtada beamed.

In BN Calara Elementary School, for instance, the group fed with rice-corn blend gained an average of 1.82 kilograms compared to the group fed with pure rice that gained an average of only 1.49 kilograms. Based on their body mass index, the nutritional status of 6 out of 70 children fed with pure rice were categorized as underweight. But from the group of 70 children fed with rice-corn, no one was left underweight. Also, the children attended school and treated the feeding programs with excitement like ‘fiestas’.

The QPM team has also been promoting the rice-corn blend among the health buffs in the metropolis to stimulate demand from the private sector as well. The HealthServ – a hospital in Los Baños– is using the ricecorn blend as part of its diabetes management program.

Strategizing for the Knockout

Despite the accomplishments of the dedicated QPM team, Dr. Art wants to enhance the supply and distribution of QPM Var 6 grits nationwide.

The main outlet is the IPBCSC, which sells the corn grits for Php 27 per kilo. Outside IPB, there is only one market vendor who is selling the rice-corn blend at a 50:50 ratio for PhP 31 per kilo at the Los Baños Crossing public market. She sells 250 kilos of corn grits from IPB in just two days.

“We must both stimulate demand, yet also ensure supply,” he said. “If we stimulate demand, farmers will plant more corn. More supply will ensure more corn grits that can meet our present and future needs of nutritious staple food.”

Dr. Art also turns emphatic on dissociating white corn from “poor man’s rice” or “food for livestock”. “We have to convince our farmers and consumers that the food they eat is no different from the food of the privileged. They must be empowered to consume nutritious food because we (UPLB scientific community and stakeholders) make it available and affordable.”