Indiana orange corn lands at Kennedy Space Center

Torbert Rocheford harvests orange corn to be milled for the Taste of Space event.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — “I don’t think you can make grits in space,” contemplated Torbert Rocheford, the Patterson Endowed Chair in Translational Genomics for Crop Improvement in the Purdue University Department of Agronomy. “Well, maybe if you had a microwave.”

For Rocheford, this is more than a thought experiment.

On Nov. 8, grits made from his variety of biofortified corn, more commonly known as orange corn due to its vibrant color, were featured at Taste of Space, an event at the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida. The event celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 12 moon landing and showcase cuisines from around the country.

The grits were part of Ambarish Lulay’s menu for the event. Lulay is executive chef at East End Grill, a Lafayette, Indiana, restaurant. Lulay previously worked at Purdue’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management and as one of Purdue University President Mitch Daniel’s personal chefs.

Rocheford began naturally selecting his unique variety of corn in the mid-1990s. His aim was to increase the amount of antioxidant carotenoids in corn, leading to a more nutritious, and beguilingly orange, product.

Specifically, Rocheford wanted to “biofortify” the corn with provitamin A carotenoids like beta-carotene and, by partnering with NGO HarvestPlus, help in efforts to introduce this crop to areas in sub-Saharan Africa where there are severe Vitamin A deficiencies and corn is a widely consumed staple crop. After things got underway in Africa, Rocheford began to wonder if he should bring orange corn to U.S. consumers.

Indiana orange corn lands at Kennedy Space Center

Orange corn growing at the Agronomy Center for Research and Education in West Lafayette, Indiana.

“I learned a government minister in Zambia asked if we eat orange corn in the U.S. He had to be told no. So, then he asked if it’s supposed to be so much better and we want them to eat it in Africa, why don’t we eat it in the U.S.?” Rocheford said. “It was a fair question.”

This led Rocheford to establish the Purdue affiliated startup NutraMaize LLC with his son, Evan Rocheford, who serves as CEO of the company.

The business, which got its start through assistance from the Purdue Foundry, is now in the process of commercializing several orange corn products.

“Professor Torbert’s orange corn grits are our flagship product and are what will be featured at the Kennedy Space Center,” Evan Rocheford said. “But over the next year we will be rolling out a full line of premium milled products.”

Typically, the corn for the grits is grown on farms around Indiana and the kernels are then milled in Rochester at Prairie Mills.

“As a research university, Purdue should be an engine for economic growth for the state of Indiana and NutraMaize is a good example of how it can be done,” Rocheford added.

The batch of grits that traveled to Florida, however, was harvested at Purdue’s AgronomyCenter for Research and Education and milled using equipment at the Indiana Corn and SoybeanInnovationCenter especially for Lulay, who prefers a coarser grind to cook with.

“I love Torbert’s grits and I love that they are developed here on Purdue’s campus,” Lulay said. “Not only are they developed for a good cause, but they have a terrific, sweet flavor and a light, fluffy texture.”

NutraMaize and Purdue jointly donated approximately 20 pounds of grits for Lulay’s use at the Nov. 8 event.

Rocheford said the inclusion of orange corn grits at the event highlights two of Purdue’s strengths: agricultural research and its space program.

“In the 1970s, the astronauts were all about Tang,” he laughed. “Maybe now they’ll start demanding orange corn.”

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