Corn- America's food hero or food villain?
Updated: Apr 10
"In corn, I think I've found the key to the American food chain. If you look at a fast-food meal, a McDonald's meal, virtually all the carbon in it - and what we eat is mostly carbon - comes from corn." Michael Pollan
Corn is America's super crop. It's literally everywhere and used in almost everything. The bright yellow stalks we picture coming from corn fields are just the tip of the iceberg in the corn empire. Only 1% of all corn grown, (aka sweet corn), ends up in grocery stores. Some corn found in stores is still on the cob during the right season, but much of it is canned or frozen. The other 99% ends up in our lives in a variety of forms, some of which are unhealthy.
It's the perfect crop in many ways. The corn plant's productivity makes it one of the cheapest food sources there is. Over 90 million acres of the US are planted in corn every year, approximately the size of California. It's the biggest crop by far and puts its other fellow vegetable crops like carrots, broccoli and celery to shame.
Corn is an all-American crop, first cultivated down in Mexico as maize some 10,000 years ago. The crop has evolved greatly since then, and for thousands of years it sustained Native American populations in both North and South America. Corn grows in many types of soil and climate, and was quickly adopted by the European settlers that took over the lands and introduced large-scale farming.
Corn has become the backbone of American agriculture for another reason. It's low prices and wide availability made it the ideal feed for animal production in farming. Most farm animals that are raised as food- cows, pigs, and chickens, are fed corn, mixed with soy and a few other inexpensive foods. Factory farms are where the bulk of our meat is made today, and they all owe their existence to the mighty corn stalk. 36% of all corn grown ends up as animal feed.
The entire dairy industry owes its profits to corn as well. Dairy cows that give us milk, cheese, and cream are chiefly raised on corn. While cows are descended from animals that chiefly ate grasses, they are fed corn because it's energy dense and can fatten the animals up quicker and cheaper.
Finally, there are the many, many processed foods that rely on corn products for their taste. Because it's cheap, corn can be harvested, crushed, and altered to make all sorts of things. Here is a partial list of things you buy at the grocery store that directly contain corn. (Remember that most meat and dairy products indirectly contain corn).
Burgers and Chicken nuggets- Corn filler
Cereal- corn flakes
Fried Foods- corn oil
Jelly Beans- corn syrup
Mayonnaise- corn oil
Peanut Butter- corn syrup
Salad Dressing- HFCS
Soups- corn starch
And here's another partial list of corn products that are in your house that are not for food consumption.
I should point out that of this list, Ethanol and other Biofuels are by far the biggest use of corn in the US. Of all the corn crop harvested each year, some 40% gets converted to Biofuels and never enters the food chain.
So this is a happy story, right? Corn is a nutrition hero and feeds the world. Well- not exactly. Sure corn is a big part of who we are and what we eat. But like everything else, it can be abused by those who want to make huge profits off of selling us unhealthy foods and drinks. And the corn industry is heavily dependent on the US government to keep it afloat. Corn farmers get billions of dollars in subsidies every year to keep growing corn. We pay part of their insurance if crops fail or if prices are too low, and there is an argument to be made as to what the opportunity costs could be if we took those billions of dollars and put them somewhere else. Most of the agricultural subsidies in the US go to the largest corporations and to just a few major crops like corn, wheat and soybeans. If that money went to bean, peach, or sweet potato farmers, America's diet would change as those foods became cheaper.
There are two corn-based foods to love, and two to watch out for.
- Good corn #1- Sweet corn! If you haven't recently had fresh corn on the cob during the summer, you need to. Corn in this manner is the freshest, tastiest, and most full of nutrients. Just be careful about spreading the wrong type of butter on top. (choose healthy fats and avoid the unhealthy ones.)
- Good corn #2- Popcorn! The popcorn industry has gotten huge, and this food is often touted as a great and healthy snack option. You can eat it hot or cold, and it stays good for a remarkable amount of time if packaged. The key here again is what kind of topping you put on it. The kind of popcorn sold in movie theaters is laden with saturated fats and has tons of calories. Microwave popcorn can be okay depending on the toppings inside, though there have been concerns about chemicals (PFOA) inside the bag- be careful not to breath them in when opening a fresh-popped bag. My preferred way to make popcorn is over the stove or in a microwave safe container with some extra virgin olive oil.
- Bad corn #1- High Fructose Corn Syrup. (HFCS) This is one of the main villains in the US food system. Because it's cheaper than sugar, HFCS is used to sweeten most soft drinks and many foods. There's no data as to whether it is worse for you than sugar, but because of its low price, it's added to foods (look for "added sugars" on the nutrition label) at a much higher rate than table sugar. If you see this on the label, try to avoid it.
- Bad corn #2- Corn raised beef. As I said above- cows are designed to graze on grasses like their ancestors, not be fed corn products by machines. Beyond the ethical problems of raising animals in small, enclosed pens and feeding them cheap grains, there is the fact that the end product is inferior. Grass-fed beef contains less fat, and the fat that it does contain is healthier- with five times as many omega 3-s as corn-fed beef. Cows that get to move their bodies and live less stressed lives produce healthier meat than the alternative.