Monday, September 9, 2013

The High Cost of Cheap Food: Fast Food Is Made of Corn

What's so bad about making food out of corn? Ask the people who invented it.

If you are what you eat, and especially if you eat industrial food, as 99 percent of Americans do, what you are is "corn."---Michael Pollan, “We Are What We Eat

Corn is petroleum based.

In “Fast Food Nation,” Eric Schlosser traces a hypothetical fast food meal to its origins in a representative cornfield in Iowa. Further probing reveals that the fuel and fertilizers that allow vast monocropped fields of corn to dominate rural landscapes are made from fossil fuels. Modern corn is grown with so many petroleum inputs that we may as well call our diets “petroleum based” rather than “plant based.” Only by applying liberal quantities of fertilizer and pesticides, having fleets of trucks to transport the corn from those remote fields, and using more petrochemicals to disguise its natural flavor and texture, is the industrial food chain capable of transforming rows of maize into the thousands of products lining supermarket shelves across America.

We sure wouldn’t buy more than a ton of corn, per person, per year if we had to figure out what to do with this much corn as a dry commodity. But disguised as everything from cake mix to Value Meals, Americans eat and drink 1500 pounds of corn per person, annually.

Why do we eat so much corn-based “food”?

Corn is a commodity.

One reason is because it’s less expensive than real food. Value Meals exist because of the subsidies we pay farmers to keep them producing commodity crops like corn and soy, which are then turned into a dizzying array of industrial foods. These products aren’t good foods to base your diet on, and particularly not the versions sold today. Michael Pollan, tracing the same route as Schlosser, has concluded that the 2.5 times corn production has increased since the 1970s is the consequence of US farming subsidies---welfare for Big Food---and that all this corn is the cause of an ongoing epidemic of obesity. The exact mechanism is uncertain: whether hyperpalatability simply drives us to eat more calories, or something more sinister---highly processed and possibly dangerous ingredients, irradiation, trans fats, carcinogenic rancid oils, genetically modified foods---is to blame.

Most corn is now genetically modified---patented, and possibly unsafe.

The vast majority of corn grown in the US---88% last year---is genetically modified to resist applications of herbicides and/or pesticides, resulting in increased use of these products. Worldwide, 30% of corn is genetically modified and increasing, a practice that threatens small farmers because of their cost and the aggressive way seed producers “protect” their patents by suing farmers in whose fields GM seed has landed. Legislation in Argentina favoring industrial farming practices represents a threat to subsistence farmers there, in the second largest producer of GM crops after the US, while in Mexico, peasant farmers see the incursion of Monsanto as “looting” the genetic diversity of native seed.

The Wikipedia page on GMOs describes the controversy over foods as one of labeling, and in which accusations of bias have been made against regulators. That the FDA has a “revolving door” at the top has been widely documented; GM seed has not so much been tested as declared not significantly different from hybridized counterparts. And while Monsanto tested their corn as animal feed for only 90 days, longer tests on rats have revealed that Roundup Ready corn causes organ damage in rats.

We could all have pellagra, and not even realize it.

Another danger of eating a diet largely made of industrially produced corn is that the corn is not nixtamalized. Corn requires nixtamalization to be eaten as a staple food because it’s imbalanced as a source of amino acids for human health. The principal storage protein in corn is zein, an imbalanced source of amino acids; the nixtamalization process reduces zein, but this protein is prized by food industry. Corn’s amino acid makeup is low in tryptophan, which is converted to niacin in the liver; niacin is an important B vitamin and potent serum cholesterol reducing nutrient.

Traditional corn nixtamalization is a poorly understood process that makes it possible to use maize as a staple food for humans.

“Nixtamalizing turns the niacin in maize into free niacin, allowing it to be absorbed by the body and preventing niacin depletion. It also reduces mycotoxins. [Link is mine. JC] Minerals are absorbed from the lime---especially calcium---which can be increased by 750%. The protein zein is also reduced, enhancing the balance of amino acids. And of course nixtamalization greatly enhances the taste of the maize. Yes, it’s most certainly worth the effort.” ---Erda Kroft’s blog entry on Nixtamal.
When corn has been grown as a staple crop without the accompanying knowledge of how to correctly process the grain, the result has been outbreaks of pellagra, a disease of niacin deficiency. Native Americans, who created modern maize (it does not self pollinate and is very unlike its nearest native relative, teocinte), also developed the nixtamalization process, in which corn is soaked in an alkaline solution and hulled. Nixtamal, hominy, masa flour, and corn tortillas made from corn processed with lime---all traditional foods---can be eaten regularly without concern.

Corn as it’s used in industrial food, however, and regular corn meal, are not nixtamalized, and this is most of the corn we eat in the US today. Since we’re a corn fed nation once again, it’s worth asking whether we’renewly at risk of pellagra. Is our Fast Food Nation suffering widely from depression, high cholesterol, irritability, weight gain, an inability to concentrate, insomnia, and carb cravings because we’re malnourished?

Image credit: photofarmer/Flickr