What About Your Corn Footprint?

June 6, 2007

Image Credit: USDA/Wikimedia CommonsAmericans eat a lot of corn. Sure there's cooked corn and corn chips and corn flakes and cornbread and the myriad other varieties found in the average American market. And, with the arrival of summer, there is now corn-on-the-cob (though here in the upper midwest: the sweet corn at the local supermarket right now is trucked in from Florida, not locally grown).

But in addition to its recognizable forms, where the corn is recognizable as corn, there are untold numbers of additional places where we don't recognize it, but where corn forms the substance of our diet. And most of that has been highly processed.

I've been reading The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan recently, and it has been a very enlightening read. One of the most shocking things to discover was just how much corn is suffused throughout the typical American diet.

Pollan enlisted a scientist at Berkeley to do a breakdown of the percentage of corn in a range of McDonald's foods. They found that more than half of the content of most of the items they studied (French fries were the only exception) was corn-based: "Soda (100 percent corn), milk shake (78 percent), salad dressing (65 percent), chicken nuggets (56 percent), cheeseburger (52 percent), and French fries (23 percent). What in the eyes of the omnivore looks like a meal of impressive variety turns out, when viewed through the eyes of the mass spectrometer, to be a meal of a far more specialized kind of eater." These numbers seem unreasonable, until you consider that the beef and the chicken were fed a diet consisting mostly of corn, that sweeteners (particularly high fructose corn syrup), oils, and other food additives are manufactured from corn by-products.

Turning around the American diet to reduce the amount of corn we consume is not going to be an easy task. And it's not even necessarily a problem with the amount of corn that we eat as it is a problem with the way that we eat so much of the corn that we eat. Eating isn't even the only way we consume corn now. We're also putting it into our gas tanks as ethanol. In many ways, corn is emblematic of the larger issue of the industrialized, over-processed way so much of our consumption has been herded. More than anything, we need to become more enlightened about the wider effects of our consumption choices.

Corn is an energy-intensive crop to grow. It takes hundreds of pounds per acre of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to produce the glut of corn that becomes feedstock for so much of the industrialized American diet. The politics and complexities of government farm subsidies are nearly overwhelming, and certainly far beyond the scope of what I can write about here, but they are certainly a sizable part of the equation as well.

Along with trying to eat more local food and more whole food (meaning unprocessed or less-processed food, not the grocery chain), reducing the amount of corn in your diet is something to consider. From an overall green perspective, reducing your corn footprint could be one of the best things you can do. I haven't seen any hard numbers for it yet, but the advantages could be numerous. Reducing the amount of corn in your diet will help to reduce both carbon emissions and chemical pollution with farm runoff. And many of the corn by-products in food are sources of empty calories, so reducing the corn in your diet can also be a healthier step.

Cutting high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) out of your diet is going to be particularly difficult, because that sweetener has made its way into all manner of products. I started looking for bread that was not made with HFCS, and found it was a lot harder to find than I imagined. Almost all bread has HFCS high up on the ingredients list. One local store brand had a decent loaf that did not contain HFCS, but it was only sporadically available. More recently, a couple of the stores we shop at have had decent, store-label organic bread that is HFCS-free (organic HFCS is a virtual oxymoron, so organic choices are a good way to limit HFCS). But it's still in more of the foods I eat than I would like.




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