What are the Black Spots on Corn Chips?

C. Lani asks: What are those little black spots on some kinds of chips?

Corn-Nachos-ChipsCorn and tortilla chips are speckled with black spots, but what exactly are they?

The staple ingredient for both corn and tortilla chips is, of course, corn. An ear of corn is made up of individual rows of kernels, and each kernel is attached to the cob via the tip cap located at the very bottom of the kernel.

Strip away the tip cap and the hilum is revealed. The hilum is what seals the base of each kernel and draws in water and other nutrients needed during the growth process. The hilum, in a way, serves as a sort of umbilical cord for the kernel. Once the kernels detach from the cob, the hilum remains as a type of scar from where it was connected.

corn2The hilum starts out clear then progresses to light green, then light brown, and finally black, which shows up on more mature kernels. It is these mature kernels that are used to make corn and tortilla chips. Since these specks of hilum do not disappear during the cooking process, they remain visible in the final food product. In addition to corn and tortilla chips, the black hilum can also typically be seen on taco shells, corn tortillas, and other similar foods made with corn.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Corn isn’t the only seed with a hilum. If you look at a bean, the hilum is usually located on the inner curved side of the kidney shape. A bean hilum is often called the eye, which makes sense since it is usually a contrasting color from the bean’s shell. The eye is the point where beans are connected to their pod via a string-like placenta by which they receive necessary nutriments for maturation.
  • In Spanish, the word tortilla comes from “torta” meaning “round cake.”
  • Corn chips are made from cornmeal that is fried in oil and baked, whereas, tortilla chips are made from corn tortillas which are most often cut into triangles and fried, or baked.
  • While it may seem like nachos have been around forever, in fact they are something of a modern invention. The person who came up with this tasty food item is generally thought to be one Ignacio “Nacho” Ayala. He seems to have invented them in the 1940s at the El Moderno restaurant near the Texas/Mexico border. His original “Nacho’s Especiales” were made via frying up some corn tortillas, melting some cheddar cheese over them, and topping the whole thing with jalapeno peppers.
  • As for the inventor of the tortilla chip itself, Rebecca Webb Carrara is generally given credit there, thinking them up in the 1940s. The genius idea came about in an attempt to reduce the amount of waste from imperfect tortillas that were rejected by her family restaurant’s automated tortilla making machine. Carranza found that these tortilla scraps made a pretty good snack when they were cut up and fried. As a result of her role here, Carranza received the Golden Tortilla award in 1994 for her contribution to the Mexican food industry.
  • After witnessing the popularity of tortilla chips in California restaurants, Frito-Lay executives decided to jump on board and create their own line of chips called Doritos, Spanish for “little golden things.” You can read all about the story of the creation of Doritos here.
  • For some foods, manufacturers see visible hilum specks as a negative component to the food item and they go to great lengths to remove them, such as with dry milled products like corn meal, corn flours, grits, and the like. In these cases, black specks may appear to be bugs or other undesirables that can sometimes naturally find their way into such product.
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