The Killer Kernel
The skinny on what's expanding our waistlines and crippling our health system.
Take a look next time you are at the supermarket. More than a quarter of everything on the shelves has corn in it. Most of the eggs, meat and poultry, and even the “natural salmon” are made of corn. The chicken nugget is corn flour piled on corn-fed chicken fried in corn oil. Corn is in your coffee whitener, Cheez Whiz, frozen yogurt, canned fruit, ketchup, pop, and vitamins. Those ingredients too hard to pronounce—maltodextrin, crystalline fructose, dextrose, lactic acid, msg, polyols, caramel colour, xanthan gum—are all made from corn.
How does our corn-dominated food system relate to human health? Wayne Roberts, one of the holistic food movement’s original iron horses and the author of The No- Nonsense Guide to World Food, doesn’t mince words with his answer. “We have a health care system that doesn't care about food, and a food system that doesn't care about health.” To his mind corn is the most obvious example. It’s “the most subsidized crop in the world, and it has only negative health consequences.” The Environmental Working Group pegs U.S. corn subsidies from 1995 to 2009 at us $73 billion, or about $5 billion per year.
The trouble with corn, or at least the industrial feedstock variety grown in North America, Roberts explains, is “it’s an extremely low-nutrient food, just an energy provider, which is used in an agricultural system that does not value human, animal, or environmental health as one of its outcomes.”
Forty per cent of U.S.-produced corn goes to fatten cows, pigs, and other livestock for meat, milk and eggs. Ethanol takes about a third. And, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) gulps up about three per cent, with exports and “other” making up the remainder.
Citing the corn-fed, fatty meat, and HFCS-based soda-pop obesity epidemic, Stephen Macko asks, “We are overwhelmingly corn, but what price have we paid?”
As a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at University of Virginia, Macko knew the two trillion-plus corn plants grown each year in Iowa—300 for every man, woman and child on the planet—had to be going somewhere. Macko estimates after water, the number one component in humans comes from corn. We’re essentially walking corn chips.
“Hair functions as a nuanced physical record of diet over time, much like a tape recording,” he explains. His collection includes locks from George Washington, Edgar Allan Poe, Diane Sawyer, and his favourite, Oetzi the Iceman. Through a complex process involving burning the hair to measure the isotopes released, his testing finds on average, about half the carbon in an average North American is derived from corn.
This is not surprising. In many ways corn is the perfect industrial crop. It is an abundant source of cheap interchangeable calories, and with a large amount of fertilizer, can be grown rapidly and predictably often on a one-person, one-machine farm enterprise. But Roberts is concerned that while corn may be good for the industrial food system, it is dysfunctional to human and planetary health. Its highly mechanized nature is hollowing out rural communities, its empty calories in our meat and pop is blowing up our waistlines, its fertilizer and pesticides are polluting our drinking water, and the industrialized food system it sustains—where the average molecule of food eaten in North America has travelled 4,000 kilometres—is polluting our air.
Are we eating too much corn? “There's a saying ‘a tonne of anything looks ugly,’” starts Dr. David Jenkins. As the Canada Research Chair in Nutrition and Metabolism at University of Toronto and Director of the Clinical and Risk Factor Modification Centre at St Michael's Hospital, he is one of Canada’s most respected nutritionists and has also worked with Loblaws to develop its Blue Menu line of healthier food products.
When corn feeds millions of cattle a day, which is inefficient because of its low nutritional value, or when a lot of corn sweeteners are added to make food interesting, “then I think you’re catering to a population that is not only growing vastly in numbers, but vastly in size. I'd say the bigger issue behind the corn story is the growth of the human population and the growth of the human appetite.”