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

Monday, September 2, 2013

The High Cost of Cheap Food: Fast Food Is Addictive

When the red pill and the blue pill are the same, choice is an illusion.

Drugs in your food. What if it only appears to be a choice?

Second in a series on "The High Cost of Cheap Food."

The effects of the fast food marketplace, in which addictive food is sold without additional regulation---where in fact it’s easier and cheaper than real, fresh food---are reflected in our mortality and morbidity statistics. In the birthplace of fast food, the leading causes of death are heart disease and cancer, putting lifestyle far ahead of gun violence as a killer of Americans.

Addiction is a deadly force that alters animals' priorities so that mice will press the cocaine lever, ignoring food and water, until they die. Rats will endure electric shock for junk food. Human animals are wired much the same way; our intellect might save us, or simply provide more sophisticated forms of cognitive dissonance.


It’s back to school time, and adult humans with graduate degrees will begin passing out "Just Say No to Drugs" brochures to children who take prescribed amphetamines. Those same well educated adult humans will line up for their morning dose of caffeine and sugar from a big chain instead of making something fresh at home for breakfast, and fail again to see the irony in their lives, even if they caught it in the classroom. It’s why we shouldn’t razz Alanis Morissette too hard for failing to come up with actual ironies for her song; most of us couldn’t spot the ironies in our own lives, either. The response to irony in our lives is cognitive dissonance more often than it’s enlightenment and the desire to change.

For good health, “a combination of regular exercise, healthy diet, smoking avoidance, and weight maintenance” is Johns Hopkins Hospital's sensible advice that's free to take. No one would dispute that personal health is very important---even priceless. Yet the number of dollars we spend positively destroying our health---including on packaged, junk, and fast foods---is enormous; when you add in the amount wasted on products promising us health and freedom from addictions---and failing to deliver--- the combined figure is incalculable.

Our actual priorities place “what's good for us” farther down the list than we care to admit. We know what is good for us , but choose what feels good, especially when it’s easier. Fatty foods, sweets, and salty foods are what we crave, and junk and fast food deliver: full of vegetable oil, unnatural sweeteners, and excess salt that, by hitting our “bliss points” reliably, alter our biology in much the same ways that highly addictive drugs like cocaine do. A Happy Meal is My First Drug Paraphernalia.

When it comes to our food, the problem isn’t simply that we lack willpower to avoid addictive and unhealthy foods; it’s that the system is designed around a particular lifestyle: one in which we work long hours, shop, and go home, efficiently and in relative isolation from other people. In this system, people eat what is manufactured, and eat it quickly, on the go. The system is designed to make us more efficient workers and consumers, not happier, more self-actualized human beings.

All the packaged foods you see advertised are designed to be addictive. The mission of any fast food restaurant is to make theirs your favorite. This can be achieved best, in a zero sum game of “stomach share” in the marketplace, by making you consume far more than you need---even designing foods that make you feel hungrier than when you sat down to eat them. “As a culture, we’ve become upset by the tobacco companies advertising to children, but we sit idly by while the food companies do the very same thing,” says Yale University professor of psychology and public health, Kelly Brownell. Even worse than these advances in junk food technology: the changes that they make to our bodies may be passed down to the next generation.

Coming next in this series: Fast food is made of petroleum.