Children of the Corn

Corn is a four-letter word.

At least it is to Michael Pollan, who delved into an anatomy of a McDonald’s meal and discovered that all roads led back to an Iowan cornfield.

It’s there, lurking, in the high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, that sweetens the pop, ketchup, relish, special sauce, faux dairy shake and salad dressing. It’s there in the fryer oil, in the starch, in the binding agents, the corn-fed chicken, the dextrose and the diglycerides. And it’s there in a number of other ways, too. In the McNugget alone, Pollan totals 13 ways corn is present in the meal.

Sounds benign enough. After all, it’s just peaches-and-cream, hearty Midwest family-values corn and, frankly, next to the petroleum products present in the chicken nugget, corn is pretty wholesome sounding.

Well, that’s what they’d have you believe. But it turns out that corn, not money, is the root of all evil today.

Pollan is a University of California Berkeley journalism professor, best known for his 2001 book, The Botany of Desire, in which he analyzed the relationship between humans and four plants. His new book is The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.

As the title suggests, he examines how not just the McMeal came to be, but three others as well: a Whole Foods meal, dinner on a pastoral eco-farm, and one he forages for himself.

His discovery? Despite all the apparent diversity in the food we eat, we actually mostly just eat a lot of corn, since it’s a component of about 25 per cent of the groceries in your average supermarket, let alone the fast food. This corn dependency is pretty weird, Pollan points out, since we are by nature omnivorous, generalist eaters — built to eat a very wide range of foods — as opposed to vegetarian, specialist eaters, built to eat a small range of foods. Koalas, who only eat eucalyptus leaves, or cows, who should only eat grass, are specialist eaters.

The omnivore’s dilemma, in fact, is just that: “What to have for dinner?” That’s a question you just never hear in koala households.

But koalas are bears of very little brain. We have very large brains that have evolved to store all sorts of information about just which mushrooms make you high, which ones poison you completely, which ones you get the pigs to dig up and which ones are ideally picked in early summer and late fall to make that lovely chanterelle risotto.

Some scientists even argue that our big brains evolved so we could remember exactly those things.

This modern reliance on corn certainly doesn’t make the most of one of our greatest evolutionary advantages — if we run out of one thing to eat, we can always find something else.

Despite such a grand survival trait and all that space in our brains to store all that how-to information, somehow, over the last 50 years, we’ve opted to eat mostly corn.

Over reliance on one crop is never a great idea. Remember the Irish potato?

But the story of how corn became so prevalent is even more nefarious. It involves two super-villains, Richard Nixon and Monsanto.

Food prices soared during the Nixon administration, prompting an inverse correlation in his poll numbers, so Washington began subsidizing corn. And Monsanto, a name that comes up just about every time the topic of the degradation of our food is addressed, did its part by creating genetically modified corn seeds to increase yields.

So far, so good. Our hero, corn, was feeding the hungry. Except that before too long there was a glut of corn; along came inventive ways to dispose of the mountains of it. Corn found its way into much commercial beer, a sweetener in the form of HFCS, pet food filler, farm animal feed and as a base in less attractive-sounding multi-syllabic ingredients in about 25 per cent of the products found on our grocery store shelves.

Cheap filler and sweetener begat supersizing (since lower food costs meant bigger portions), and supersizing begat obesity.

Worse yet, when it comes to your big gulp, the supersizing is a double whammy — more fructose makes us fat, which leads to diabetes.

On top of that, corn fructose is much harder for our bodies to metabolize than traditional cane sugar glucose, and a possible cause of diabetes (one major U.S. study projects that one in three Americans born in 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetimes).

It gets worse. Pollan demonstrates how a series of other seemingly unconnected problems, such as our greenhouse gas buildup and our newer improved E. coli problems (made super-resistant thanks to the acids produced in the sick, corn-eating cows’ stomachs) can be traced back to corn. It’s not just the cows that are sick; our entire food system is.

What about Pollen’s other three meals? Is there hope for a healthier food system lying in those? Well, yes, to varying degrees.

The pastoral, pre-industrial farm meal he enjoys sounds healthy, tasty and utopian. The meal he cobbles together from foraging and hunting is grand, but neither are realistic options for getting dinner for four on the table every night. Concerned foodies turn to “big organic” places such as Whole Foods, in the hopes that a pastoral farm meal might be delivered to the downtown core. But, by definition, slow food isn’t driven into town on a truck.

Aside from the fact that Whole Food carts are suspiciously full of pre-packaged, supposedly healthy processed foods rather than real fresh ingredients, thereby missing the point of cooking healthy food from scratch, I think most of us have had a growing suspicion that a lot of “big organic” is a pretty savvy marketing ploy with few real health or ethical advantages.

Pollan confirms that fear. At least there are fewer bad things like nitrates in organic produce, and more good things like antioxidant plant phenols. Those of us squeamish about hormones in beef, and the possibility of mad cow brain-wasting prions coming from the continuing practice of turning herbivore cows into cannibalistic carnivores, can rest easy. Our organic beef comes from cows fed on, well, corn. Oops.

The lesser of two evils? Maybe.

But the whole “big organic” is modelled pretty closely after the industrial food chain it was set up to compete with, and therefore comes with its own pitfalls. For example, organic is certainly not environmentally sustainable, because it relies so heavily on petroleum. If fact, Pollan says our entire food system is “floating on a sinking sea of petroleum.”

First we drive the seed to the farm, using petroleum, then we use petroleum to make fertilizer, then we use fuel-powered tractors and finish it off with fuel-powered processing plants. Then we drive the produce all around the world. And what plant requires just about the highest ratio of petroleum to edible stuff produced?

Corn. In the United States, a quarter to a third of a gallon of oil goes into every bushel of corn.

It’s a fascinating (and twisted) system. Pollan tells the story of our food and how we got here brilliantly. This is simply one of the best books ever written about the state of our food. Everyone who cares about what we eat should read this book.

Paradoxically, I wouldn’t wish the book on anyone. Now I’m looking at labels to see if HFCS is listed as the first ingredient, haven’t eaten corn-fed cow flesh in weeks and am seeing corn everywhere. Even in my bourbon. Corn dogs? Right out. The book nearly made me lose my lunch, pack it all in and run away to a cattle ranch in Argentina.

Maybe it’s best to pack a light lunch.