What is for Dinner…Corn, or…Corn?

Class this week was a discussion rooted from the reading of Michael Pollan’s book Omnivore’s Dilemma.   Pollan discusses the day to day struggles humans face when deciding what to eat; we have so much variety in what to choose and so little information about what it is we are eating.  When we go to the grocery store and pick up a bottle of Coca-cola, or a can of soup, or a bottle of ketchup, what is it that we are actually eating?  The answer is corn, corn, and more corn.

As a class we discussed all the different products that come from corn, along with how many of these we eat directly, indirectly, or not at all. When reading the label of ingredients on many processed foods, many are found to contain ingredients such as citric and lactic acid, glucose, fructose, maltodextrin, ethanol, sorbitol, mannitol, xanthan gum, modified and unmodified corn starches, and MSG.  All of these ingredients are manufactured from corn.  Corn is used to feed cattle and chicken, to make the ethanol that is used to fuel our cars, and to produce the building materials for our homes. How is it that corn has come to be used in so many parts of our everyday lives?

There are several reasons why corn has become so abundant.  For one, the efficiency of farmer’s ability to grow corn has been perfected.  Secondly, the federal government provides subsidies for the growth of corn.  The more corn farmers produce the more financial benefits they receive from the government.  This allows farmers to produce as much corn as possible and sell it at extremely low prices.  As a result, a huge surplus of corn has been created in our country.  Due to this immense surplus, food processing companies have developed what seem to be endless uses for corn.  The consumption of corn was a major source of propaganda when government subsidies started increasing this surplus.  Corn and its many substituent products used to be advertised as healthy and to be used at every meal.  This mentality is very different from that of today, which is entirely the opposite.

In class we also discussed what exactly substances like xanthan gum, modified corn starches, and high fructose corn syrup are on a chemical level.  Xanthan gum is a polymer of glucose that has been modified.  Corn starch is a linear polymer of glucose.  Xanthan gum and other modified corn starches are branched glucose polymers that add structure and texture to foods.

Xanthan Gum

The dreaded high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is what has been manufacture as an inexpensive sweetener to replace sucrose harvested from sugar cane or sugar beets.  Corn syrup is simply glucose.  HFCS is made from converting glucose syrup to fructose syrup, and then adding it back to glucose syrup.  HFCS is 55% glucose and 45% fructose, this mixture creates the desired sweetness similar to that of sucrose or common table sugar. Fructose is the sweetest of these three sugars, sucrose is in the middle, and glucose is the least sweet.  This is how the combination of fructose and glucose in HFCS creates a similar taste to sucrose. 

Several debates took place during the class period.  One interesting topic was about a cup made entirely from corn. It looked and functioned just like a plastic cup, but was 100% compostable.  The debate was rooted in the question of whether the concept of the cup actually made a positive difference on the environment or not.  Yes, the cup was compostable, but the question at hand was if that outweighed the amount of resources that went into making the cup out of corn.  

The process to make the cup out of corn is longer and more costly than making it out of plastic.  It takes more petroleum to make the cup out of corn than out of crude oil, while the plastic cup made out of oil is still recyclable.  The class seemed to agree that it really was not worth making the cup out of corn; it only represents the extreme surplus of corn that plagues our country. Why is this surplus such a problem?

The surplus of corn has found its way into most of our food.  Corn is a very high energy source due to the large amount of carbohydrates, and when it is broken down into pure sugar, it is not very healthy.  As Americans, we come into contact with this food source more than any other country in the world and our health is affected by it.  We know this because corn is traceable within our bodies.  When corn fixes carbon from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere during photosynthesis it has the tendency to fix more of the isotope carbon13 rather than carbon12.  You are what you eat, literally, and Americans contain more carbon13 than people from any other country.  We are also one of the most overweight countries, and there may be a correlation between this and our corn consumption.

The class final debate was whether or not the federal government should continue subsidizing the production of corn.  The main points to continue subsidizing was that stopping the subsidy would not fix the problems which it created; it would only create more problems.  Under the current system, products made from corn are extremely cheap compared to most other products; the removal of the government subsidy would cause these prices to rise.  As a society, we are dependent on corn.  It is found in more than a quarter of the items in most grocery stores.  What will happen to the variety of these products once corn is not as readily available, and how will our country respond?  These are questions that must be answered before we consider stopping the subsidy of corn.

The main point to stop subsidizing corn production was that it would address many of the health problems associated with processed foods and prevent the use of environmentally dangerous fertilizers that are required for industrial corn production.  Corn requires nitrogen rich soil to thrive, and nitrogen fertilizers are dangerous to surrounding ecosystems.  Increased nitrogen in water systems can drastically change the amounts of algae and disrupt the ecosystems.  Another argument made against the continued subsidy of corn was that it supports single-crop farming which is highly unsustainable due.  It depletes the nutrients in the soil and lends itself vulnerable to parasites.  Poly-crop farming is much more sustainable; it lends itself to crop rotation.   As with most questions relating to food health, the final compromise was “it depends.” It depends on how each choice is carried out.  If the government chose to stop providing subsidies, then how would they compensate farmers, how would they deal with the price increase of corn, and what would they use to substitute for the many uses of corn?  If the subsidies continue, then how will the government and society address the problems that have been created while still producing and consuming so much corn?


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