Last week we talked about corn, and especially about the detrimental effects of corn being fed to animals - particularly cattle. We left you with the surprising fact that each person in the US consumes about 1 ton of corn per year. How does one person possibly eat that much corn? Besides feeding meat animals, and your gas tank, here's what happens to most of the rest of that corn:

It is processed.

First, the grains of corn are usually soaked in an acid bath, then ground, the germ separated out, the kernels crushed, then further ground, filtered, spun, etc. Water is added, more acids are added, dissolving, pulverizing, separating  into different components, and the process goes on. If it sounds like quite an intensive process, it is. According to Michael Pollan's book, The Ominivore's Dilemma, for every calorie of processed food produced from corn, 10 calories of fossil fuel energy are burned.

Along with corn syrup (not surprisingly one of the largest uses), corn also becomes corn starch, citric and lactic acid, glucose, fructose, maltodextrin, ethanol, sorbitol, mannitol, xanthan gum, modified and unmodified starches, dextrins, cyclodextrins, and MSG - among hundreds of others. Most all of these will be familiar to you if you've ever looked at the label of most processed food items. It's no wonder that you eat a lot more corn than you might think you do!
For example, take the seemingly simple chicken nugget: When examining the ingredients of this popular food item, Pollan found that "of the 38 ingredients it takes to make a McNugget, 13 can be derived from corn." (For the sake of prurient interest, here is the entire list: "White" Chicken Meat (corn-fed, of course; oh, and this "white meat" isn't necessarily what you might think of when you picture a chicken breast; a recent study by the American Journal of Medicine found that a high percentage of the "meat" in chicken nuggets is actually a combination of "blood vessels, nerves, and chipped bones" - not exactly appetizing is it?), Water, Food (Corn) Starch-Modified, Salt, Seasoning (Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Salt, Wheat Starch, Natural Flavoring [Botanical Source], Safflower Oil, Dextrose, Citric Acid), Sodium Phosphates, Natural Flavor (Botanical Source). Battered and Breaded with: Water, Enriched Flour (Bleached Wheat Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Yellow Corn Flour, Bleached Wheat Flour, Food Starch-Modified, Salt, Leavening (Baking Soda, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Monocalcium Phosphate, Calcium Lactate), Spices, Wheat Starch, Dextrose, Corn Starch, Dimethylpolysiloxane, Prepared In: Vegetable oil (Canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, hydrogenated soybean oil, tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ - a form of butane!), citric acid).*

*Note: My additions are in italics. I took the above list of ingredients from the McDonald's published ingredient list, not from the book. The book did not list every single ingredient, and I figured they might have changed somewhat from when it was published anyway, so the list above is the current listing from the McDonald's website.
Almost all remain the same as discussed in the book; for more on what these ingredients are, and what effects they might potentially have on your health, see Page 113 & 114 in the book.)

Whew! And if you still don't think you eat that much corn, check out Pollan's fast-food meal adventure, where he runs each food item through a mass spectrometer to identify how much of each item comes from/consists of corn. The lab results showed that of their McDonald's meal of chicken nuggets, cheeseburger, fries, salad (with dressing), sodas, and a milkshake, a full 62% of it was corn!

But so what, you may wonder, and why should you care how much corn you eat? It all depends on "where you stand," according to Pollan.

"If where you stand is in agribusiness, processing cheap corn into 45 different McDonald's items is an impressive accomplishment.... Supersized portions of cheap food solves the problem of the fixed stomach. We may not be expanding the number of eaters in America, but we've figured out how to expand each of their appetites, which is almost as good." In their fast-food lunch, the Pollan family consumed a total of 4,510 calories - "more than half as much as we should each probably consume in a day." (And as he reminds us, growing and processing these calories took at least 10 times as many calories of fossil energy.)

If you stand "on one of the lower rungs of America's economic ladder, our cornified food chain offers real advantages....cheap calories in a variety of attractive forms. In the long run, however, the eater pays a high price for these cheap calories: obesity, Type II diabetes, and heart disease."

Think of it this way: farmers are no fools. There is a reason corn is fed to food animals, besides the fact that it's super cheap and readily available: it fattens them up faster than just about anything.

So what do you think it's doing to you???

Furthermore.... "If  where you stand is at the lower end of the world's economic ladder, America's corn-fed food chain looks like an unalloyed disaster."  The never-ending flood of cheap corn has far-reaching effects that have contributed to poverty in all corners of the globe, bankrupting farmers here at home, as well as abroad, where more and more countries have turned to relying on imports of this abundant seed called corn, instead of supporting their own local farming communities. (See Pollan's book for more on this.)

And if you stand in a cornfield? Growing corn in monoculture has not actually benefited the farmer, as one might think. Nor has it benefited his land in any way. Instead, it has depleted the farmer's soil, polluted the local ground water and overall health of the community, damaged the biodiversity of the landscape, and impacted the health of all the creatures living on or downstream from the farm. "And not only those creatures, for cheap  corn has also changed, and much for the worse, the lives of several billion food animals, animals that would not be living on factory farms if not for the ocean of corn on which these animal cities float."

Are you starting to get the picture of just how much power the empire of corn has over our entire food supply, environment, and even the planet? Hopefully this will make you think twice about supporting the empire....


However, if you're the corn plant, the story is quite different. "Of all the species that have figured out how to thrive in a world dominated by Homo sapiens, surely no other has succeded more spectacularly - has colonized more acres and bodies - than Zea mays, the grass that domesticated its domesticator."

As I neared the end of the section on corn, I found I had developed a whole new perspective on not just processed food, but our entire food supply. Obviously many of us now know that processed foods are really not very good for us. But I, for one, had not really realized just how much of an impact the food processing industry (aka corn processing industry) has on our environment as well. Consumption of processed foods not only makes us physically unhealthy, but it supports and feeds an industry that is basically destroying our economy and our planet in hidden ways that most people really don't see or understand.

But the empire doesn't care. And there's a good reason for that - which all comes back to us in the end:


As Pollan summarizes, rather hauntingly, "corn has been exempted from the usual rules of nature and economics.... In nature, the population of a species explodes until it exhausts its supply of food; then it crashes. In the market, an oversupply of a commodity depresses prices until either the surplus is consumed or it no longer makes sense to produce any more of it. In corn's case, humans have labored mightily to free it from either constraint, even if that means going broke growing it, and consuming it just as fast as we possibly can."

So what can we do? Is there a hope of ever escaping the empire's grasp? There is - if we take responsibility for our own health and the food we eat. You can opt out of the empire of corn! And it's actually not that difficult. Like anything else, it comes down to the simple choices you make every day. Stay tuned to this blog for more information on opting out!

 


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