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Sunday, October 6, 2013
By HOLLY KOZELSKY - Bulletin Accent Editor
How many products can you name that are made from corn?
Take a break a few moments to think about it. This column will be a lot more fun to read after you’ve listed as many as you can think of.
There’s corn on the cob, of course; corn flakes, creamed corn, corn starch, corn syrup, corn bread ...
Did you think to add Tang, Cheez Whiz, margarine and Cool Whip to that list?
In his book “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Michael Pollan gave a shocking figure: “There are some 45 thousand items in the average American supermarket, and more than a quarter of them now contain corn.”
They include Tang, Cheez Whiz, margarine and Cool Whip.
“One of the truly odd things about the 10 billion bushels of corn harvested each year is how little of it we eat,” Pollan wrote. The sweet corn and white corn we eat fresh, or make into recognizable corn products such as tortilla chips or corn flakes, “represent a fraction of the harvest.”
Twenty-five mills in the United States break corn down into its chemical components by physical pressure, acids and enzymes, he wrote.
The germ (tiny part near the cob) is crushed for oil. The endosperm (the biggest part) has “an abundance of carbohydrate molecules in long chains that chemists have learned to break down and then rearrange into hundreds of different organic compounds — acids, sugars, starches and alcohols,”Pollan wrote.
Forty cents of every dollar on whole foods such as eggs goes to the farmer. When it comes to corn products, 4 cents of every dollar reaches the farmer. That’s because most of the money in corn comes from changing it into something else.
Corn is a greedy plant: It requires huge amounts of nitrogen to grow. Corn only came to dominate the American food world after fertilizer was made cheap and easy.
That came about in the 1950s. Chemical fertilizers got their start in weapon production in World War II. After the war, the chemical plants targeted their products to the American farmer.
That freed corn from being part of the intricate web of farm life — where the farmer would fertilize it with farm waste — and into an isolated life of its own.
“The dream of liberating food from nature is as old as eating,” Pollan wrote.
Food companies tear down corn into its basic chemical parts, then build it up again into new foods. These convenience foods aren’t subject to nature’s whims.
Don’t wait for orange season — mix Tang into a glass of water. Don’t worry about cream spoiling — top your pie with Cool Whip instead, no cow needed.
Corn’s dominance of America sounds impressive, but it’s actually a little scary, if you consider the implications. Animals and people were designed to eat mostly grain, not corn. Corn is cheap to grow, transport and dump into troughs for animals — but it wreaks havoc with their digestive systems.
The explosion of corn production led to the demise of family farms. Cows used to live in pastures and eat grass (grain). The cheapness of corn made it possible to put cows in small concrete enclosures called Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) and just dump loads of corn into feeding troughs.
That’s why you hear such acclaim over grain-fed beef: Those cows raised eating grass in pastures have much better lives than the prison-like CAFOs where most American cows live; they don’t have constant tummy aches from the corn (which also raises incidences of e. coli and other problems that affect humans, too); and, people say, the taste of their meat is much better.
Grain-fed beef sounds like a new discovery, but it’s not. It’s the way it was done for thousands of years, before corn became king.