I've noticed high-fructose corn syrup on the label of many of my favorite soups, drinks and condiments. Why do so many food manufacturers use this ingredient and what are the health and environmental implications?
Don, Visiting from Pennsylvania
What do beer, bacon and brownies have in common? Corn! That's right; corn is the secret ingredient that forms the foundation of the American food system and accounts for that high-fructose corn syrup (among many other things) on the food label. These days, most of us are made of corn, unless you eat a predominantly organic diet.
The story of corn is fascinating and there are two important resources you can take advantage of for details: Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" (a book everyone should read) and the film "King Corn." Understanding where our food comes from is one of the most important things you can do for your body and for the planet. Doing something about it, is the other.
Let's begin with the label. If you dissect the kernel, you find that the fibrous yellow skin is often processed into vitamins and supplements. The internal, tiny germ is extracted for oil. The endosperm, the largest part of the kernel made up of starch and gluten, contains the jackpot of carbohydrates.
At the processing plant, corn undergoes "wet milling" via an acidic process that transforms cornstarch into glucose into corn syrup. Wet milling is extremely energy intensive and according to Pollan, 5 gallons of water are used to process a bushel of corn. Wet milling is just one of many processes where corn is transformed into human food, animal feed or ethanol.
Once processed, corn can be labeled as the typical hard-to-pronounce ingredient on the back of the box or can. High-fructose corn syrup, citric acid, maltoxdextrin, sorbitol, xanthan gum, modified starches, dextrins, and MSG (to name a few) are forms of corn. When it comes to actual products, more than half (and some say as much as 90 percent) of the food you find on the supermarket shelf contains corn ingredients - candies, cake mixes, hot sauce, mayonnaise, salad dressings, ice cream, cookies, margarine, soup ...
Even stranger, corn can be found in non-food items like diapers, toothpaste, makeup, cleaners, batteries, linoleum, fiberglass and adhesives. But the most alarming and consequential use of corn is meat - cow, pig and chicken. Corn is responsible for factory farms or CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) that account for cheap meat, inhumane treatment of animals and environmental pollution.
So how did we get to where we are today - corn as the central ingredient of our food? According to Michael Pollan, it has a lot to do with food politics and corn surplus. We've incentivized the American farmer to grow an endless supply of corn and as a consequence, needed to find something to do with it all. That's where you and I come in. After a great deal of the corn is divided up between factory farms (as unnatural animal feed) and ethanol (as fuel for our cars), corn is processed into the many food products that we put in our shopping carts and bellies, from supermarkets to fast food restaurants.
Since the 1970s and the "shift to cheap corn" by way of Earl Butz and food processing lobbyists, our country has continued to support food policies (i.e. the Farm Bill) that incentivize the overproduction of corn. A food system that revolves around corn is not a healthy system!
Corn is a nitrogen-hungry crop that relies on excessive synthetic fertilizers. Corn is grown in monocultures devoid of biodiversity and constantly threatened by pests (hence the overuse of pesticides on corn fields). A predominately corn-based diet for both animals and humans is destined for disease. Our nation has the highest obesity and diabetes rates in history!
Even though we often feel powerless in the face of giant corporations and "Big Ag," the consumer actually has the upper hand. We can demand better food with our dollars. We can lobby for a better Farm Bill. We can take back our food systems by supporting local, independent farmers.
You can start by joining like-minded individuals and supporting conservation efforts in your own backyard by attending the 24th Annual Tim McClure Benefit, tonight at 6:30, at The Maggie in Breckenridge. All proceeds benefit the High Country Conservation Center, including sustainable food programs like community gardens. Visit www.highcountryconservation.org for details.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.