In Michael Pollan’s New York Times ‘One of the 10 Best Books of the Year’ and ‘James Beard Award’ winner, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” he reveals the shocking reality of our food system and the effects of a diet largely based on processed corn.
So what exactly would an ecological detective set loose in an American supermarket discover, were he to trace the items in his shopping cart all the way back to the soil? The notion began to occupy me a few years ago, after I realized that the straightforward question “What should I eat?” could no longer be answered without first addressing two other straightforward questions: “What am I eating? And where in the world did it come from?” Not very long ago an eater didn’t need a journalist to answer these questions. The fact that today one so often does suggests a pretty good start on a working definition of industrial food: Any food whose provenance is so complex or obscure that it requires expert help to ascertain.
When I started trying to follow the industrial food chain – the one that now feeds most of us most of the time and typically culminates either in a supermarket or fast-food meal – I expected my investigations would lead me to a variety of places. And though my journeys did take me to a great many states, and covered a great many miles, at the end of these food chains (which is to say, at the very beginning), I invariably found myself in almost exactly the same place: a farm field in the American Corn Belt.
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 lives indoors tethered to machines, eating corn.
Head over to the processed foods and you find ever more intricate manifestations of corn. A chicken nugget, for example, piles corn upon corn: what chicken it contains consists of corn, of course, but so do most of a 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, and 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’d still 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 maltose and HFCS. for MSG and polls, for the caramel color and anthem 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, 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. (Yes, it’s in the Twinkie, too.) There are some forty-five thousand items in the supermarket and more than a quarter of them now contain corn. 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. Even in Produce on a day when there is ostensibly no corn for sale you’ll nevertheless find plenty of corn: in the vegetable wax that gives the cucumbers their sheen, in the pesticide responsible for the produce’s perfection, even in the coating on the cardboard it was shipped in. Indeed, the supermarket itself – the wallboard and joint compound, the linoleum and fibreglass and adhesives out of which the building itself has been built – is in no small measure a manifestation of corn.
The higher the ratio of carbon 13 to carbon 12 in a person’s flesh, the more corn has been in his diet – or in the diet of the animals he or she ate.
One would expect to find a comparatively high proportion of carbon 13 in the flesh of people whose staple food of choice is corn – Mexicans, most famously. Americans eat much more what than corn – 114 pounds of wheat flour per person per year, compared to 11 pounds of corn flour.” “But carbon 13 doesn’t lie, and researchers who have compared isotopes in the flesh or hair of North Americans to those in the same tissues of Mexicans report that it is now we in the North who are the true people of corn. “When you look at the isotope ratios,” Todd Dawson, a Berkeley biologist who’s done this sort of research, told me, “we North Americans look like corn chips with legs.” Compared to us, Mexicans today consume a far more varied carbon diet: the animals they eat still eat grass (until recently, Mexicans regarded feeding corn to livestock as a sacrilege); much of their protein comes from legumes; and they still sweeten their beverages with cane sugar. So that’s us: processed corn, walking. pg 23