On the suggestion of a few women at GCM, I decided to pick up a copy of The Omnivore’s Dilemma – A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. It is really good. Who knew that a book about crops and factory farming could be such a page turner?
The first chapter discusses corn and the fact that it is present in the majority of our foods. We eat a ridiculous amount of corn.
Corn is what feeds the steer that becomes the steak. Corn feeds the chicken and the pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the tilapia and, increasingly, even the salmon, a carnivore by nature that the fish farmers are reengineering to tolerate corn. The eggs are made of corn. The milk and cheese and yogurt, which once came from dairy cows that grazed on grass, now typically come from Holsteins that spend their working lives indoors tethered to machines, eating corn.
Head over to the processed foods and you find even more intricate manifestations of corn. A chicken nugget, for example, piles corn upon corn: what chicken contains consists of corn, of course, but so do most of the nugget’s other constituents, including the modified corn starch that glues the thing together, the corn flour in the batter that coats it, and the corn oil in which it gets fried. Much less obviously, the leavenings and lecithin, the mono-, di-, and triglycerides, the attractive golden coloring, even the citric acid that keeps the nugget “fresh” can all be derived from corn.
To wash down your chicken nuggets with virtually any soft drink in the supermarket is to have some corn with your corn. Since the 1980s virtually all the sodas and most of the fruit drinks sold in the supermarket have been sweetened with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)–after water, corn sweetener is their principal ingredient. Grab a beer for your beverage instead and you’ll be drinking corn, in the form of alcohol fermented from glucose refined from corn. Read the ingredients on the label of any processed food and, provided you know the chemical names it travels under, corn is what you will find. For modified or unmodified starch, for glucose syrup and maltodextrin, for crystalline fructose and ascorbic acid, for lecithin and dextrose, lactic acid and lysine, for maltrose and HFCS, for MSG and polyols, for the caramel color and xanthan gum, read: corn. Corn is in the coffee whitener and Cheez Whiz, the frozen yogurt and TV dinner, the canned fruit and ketchup and candies, the soups and snacks and cake mixes, the frosting and gravy and frozen waffles, the syrups and hot sauces, the mayonnaise and mustard, the hot dogs and the bologna, the margarine and shortening, the salad dressings and the relishes and even the vitamins… This goes for the nonfood items as well: Everything from the toothpaste and cosmetics to the disposable diapers, trash bags, cleansers, charcoal briquettes, matches, and batteries, right down to the shine on the cover of the magazine that catches your eye by the checkout: corn.
As a matter of fact, he even goes into the science of how, through DNA testing, Americans have a ridiculous amount of corn in them. We even have more corn in us than the Mexicans, who generally eat 40% of their diet from corn.
Now that corn has taken over most other crops, the earth gets depleted so nitrogen-replacing fertilizers must be used. The nitrogen from those fertilizers not only ends up in our bodies, but contributes to global warming, the killing of many other species of fish and animals, and a huge loss of variety in our diets. Then again, experts estimate that 2 out of 5 of us would be dead if it weren’t for those fertilizers. That’s not so hot either.
He goes into great detail about the genetic modifications of corn and what that means for the land, for us, and for our future. Its really good stuff.
I know I’ve read about this before, but I found this to be a really fascinating first chapter. I’m sure I’ll keep posting about this book as I go.
Oh, and as an interesting side note, “modifying” the salmon to eat corn is something that my brother has been working on as a genetic engineer. Good stuff, huh? Can you believe we came from the same genetic pool? LOL. He’s great at what he does though!