Would You Like Corn With That?

  by  |  November 10th, 2008  |  Published in All, Blog

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I’m going to put it out there: I love corn. Sweet, yellow corn on the cob, slathered with butter and a light sprinkling of salt. When I take the first bite of that fresh corn in the summer, I’m so in love I think I could eat it for the other 10 months of the year, breakfast, lunch, dinner. Corn, corn, corn.

Today, however, a new kernel of information published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that maybe I have been eating it all along.

Hope Jahren and Rebecca Kraft of the University of Hawaii used a stable isotope analysis of carbon and nitrogen to examine the food served at three fast food restaurants: McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s. Their findings, described in the article “Carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes in fastfood: Signatures of corn and confinement,” show that the overwhelming majority of fast food is based on a single source: corn.

Corn’s unique carbon signature is present in the burgers, chicken and even fries served at the restaurants. This means that the cows and chickens that became fast-food sandwiches were fed corn when they were still alive. In fact, in their 162 samples of beef, only 12 showed a food source that was not corn.

Why is this a big deal? Animals in feedlots are fed corn to provide them with as many calories as possible in order to fatten them up sooner. Corn might not have much in the way of nutritional value (the most hefty mineral in it is iron, at 25%), but as Catherine Friend notes in her book The Compassionate Carnivore, “when it comes to calories, corn is king.”

Unfortunately, she says, animals like cows and sheep weren’t meant to load up on corn, and “the heavy corn diet creates such acid in their bodies that their livers blow out.” Pumping them full of antibiotics is the only way to keep them healthy enough to get to market weight. Mmm, tasty.

Jahren and Kraft’s findings only further prove what Michael Pollan described in his 2006 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and what filmmaker Aaron Woolf showed in the film King Corn (2007): that a shocking chunk of the American diet—not just fast-food—can be traced back to corn. Corn isn’t just what we feed the animals we eat, but it’s also in the sweeteners in soda, the artificial yellow coloring of a snack, and the fermented glucose in beer.

It is of little surprise to see that during their study, Jahren and Kraft also found corn present in the different oils used to cook the food (not to mention the fact that these oils didn’t always match the advertised ingredients).

What I’m wondering is, if a diet heavy in corn can destroy the liver of a 1400-pound cow, what’s it going to do to me, a much-less-than-1400-pound person? All of a sudden, I’m not so hungry anymore.

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  1. Cyndi says:

    November 12th, 2008 at 11:33 pm (#)

    You say: “What I’m wondering is, if a diet heavy in corn can destroy the liver of a 1400-pound cow, what’s it going to do to me, a much-less-than-1400-pound person?” I think it depends.

    As your quote points out, cows and sheep aren't meant to have that much corn. Humans can. Many cultures (traditional Mexican is the obvious one) incorporate large amounts of corn into their diets. One source says traditional Mexican adults generally eat a pound of masa (lime treated corn) a day. I believe some of the cultures that eat a lot of corn do not eat masa or corn that has otherwise been treated to release more nutrients, yet they do well.

    But heirloom stock, organically grown, low-processed corn is a far cry from hybrid (bred for yield and storage not nutrition), chemically-laden, over-processed corn. Even masa harina (masa flour, mostly made from chemically-grown corn and who knows how it's processed) isn't anywhere near as good as the fresh stuff.

    Unfortunately, as you point out, much of our corn consumption comes from secondary sources and who knows how that changes things. And corn-fed animals have very different fatty acid profiles from pastured animals, which affects human health considerably. Then there is HFCS which is the junkiest of junk foods and shouldn't count as corn in any way aside from allergy considerations.

    I love one of Michael Pollan's statements which is that ALL traditional diets are healthy ones. Forget the you must eat X and avoid Y. It's all about context. If you ate lots of (organic, hand-processed, heirloom) corn in the context of a traditional diet (which means balancing it with other traditional foods), your liver would be fine (barring pre-existing medical problems which probably arose from a bad diet).

    Where we run into problems is with the comodity argument. Corn is corn is corn. It's not. The form of corn, how it's grown, its heritage, and what you do with it all matter.

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