Tuesday, August 4, 2009

King Corn

I (finally) have gotten around to reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. There's a lot of stuff in there that I kinda already knew: factory farming of animals is disgusting, agricultural policy in this country creates all the wrong incentives, we're feeding corn to cows even though they normally eat grass. Of course, learning about these things in more depth is nice.

But one thing that I don't think I had appreciated nearly as much was the sheer pervasiveness of corn in our diets. Any processed food, and I do mean any, has corn in it. Maltodextrin, MSG, lecithin, and the ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup -- all these ingredients, and many many more, are processed from corn.

So I decided to do an experiment, to see if I could avoid corn for a single day. I thought of this experiment the morning of, so I didn't have a lot of lead time to, say, arrange for a deep sea fishing trip to catch my dinner, plus my gun was, uh, in the, uh, gun shop, so I couldn't go hunting for, uh, varmints.

Breakfast was easy: coffee. There's a whole food if there ever was one.
Lunch: Went to the local Stop n' Shop, and after a lot of label-reading, was left with strawberries, Stonyfield organic yogurt, cashews, and V8 juice.
Dinner: Cheese and wheat crackers, homemade granola with yogurt.

Obviously there are a lot of really tasty things I could have eaten for dinner if I weren't feeling particularly lazy -- grass fed beef, for example (but no ketchup!) And my lovely wife pointed out to me that I kinda cheated with all the yogurt & dairy, as even those cows were likely corn-fed. So yes, corn is indeed everywhere.

Now, I'm certainly not going to cut corn out of my diet, this was just an experiment to see how ubiquitous it is. That said, I don't think processed foods are all that good for you, and we'd probably all be in better health if everything we ate didn't have high fructose corn syrup in it. I've heard it argued to those who have these thoughts that, well, if we all ate organic, we wouldn't be able to produce enough food to feed everyone. This I'm not so sure about. Corn, as it is currently grown, requires a helluva lot of petroleum-based fertilizer, which ain't cheap. Plus, by feeding it to cows or breaking it down into its component parts and industrially treating it (i.e. where maltodextrin comes from), a lot of energy gets used up. In other words, if you eat the corn itself, you're getting a very high percentage of the energy captured from the sun, but with each layer of feeding or processing, there's about a ten-fold drop in efficiency. Sure, corn is cheap, but that's because our government wants it to be. Plus, all these inefficiencies (run-off of fertilizer into rivers, giant lagoons of cow crap) have externalities that currently aren't being accounted for. But since our democracy would obviously fall apart if we didn't allow Iowa to hold the first caucus, I'm sure our idiotic corn-centric policy isn't going to change any time soon.