How On Earth Did Corn Get In My Hair?

If we look at the world from a different species’ perspective, let’s say a plant’s eye view, as Michael Pollan recently did in a TED talk, then something incredible emerges. No longer do homo sapiens appear to be ruling the kingdom of earth, but, in fact, we find ourselves to be at the mercy of one particular freaky grass. A grass that, evolutionary speaking, should not have risen to such heights given its inaccessible husks that taken raw are barely edible. But ascend it did and it was only able to do so through its clever co-evolution with humans. I am of course talking about corn…industrial corn that is.

This distinction is important here since corn in fact comes in hundreds of varieties, shapes, sizes and colours and is still bred for diversity by poor rural farmers in its native Mexico and Meso-America. That corn is the corn that has been the central subject of adoration, worship and myth of creation for the Maya people and their predecessors, who call themselves ‘Men of Maize’, going back as far as 9,000 years. That corn is worlds apart from the corn that is silently taking over our planet and ourselves.

The industrial corn we are talking about is a specific strain that has over the years been selected for its ‘productivity’: the yellow dent corn that dominates much of North America.

This corn is the corn that in 2012 will claim 94 million acres of arable land in the US alone (almost a third of the country’s total harvested cropland), the largest planting since the Second World War. It is the corn, whose industrially produced derivatives, such as High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), enter our systems directly through thousands of different industrial foods and drinks (with US citizens annually consuming 60 pounds of HFCS each), and indirectly through the corn-fed chicken and beef we eat (upwards of 93% of US corn belt dent corn is used for animal feed). It is the corn that provides 15-20% of calories in an average American’s diet and manifests itself in our bodies so much so that, as Pollan tells us in his 2010 book the Omnivore’s Dilemma, at the molecular isotopic level, we look like walking stalks of corn. Maybe a new biological term is required to classify this new creature we have created – a Cornavore perhaps?

No one has highlighted this c(orn)olonisation of our bodies more comically than the makers of the 2007 Peabody winning King Corn documentary (available on Netflix). In it, two fast food loving friends, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, take their hair samples to a lab to have them tested for their isotopic signatures. To cut a long story short, what they found was corn. Scientists are able to ascertain the main contents of an animal’s diet from its flesh and bones because the ratio of different Carbon isotopes in foods such as rice, wheat, soya beans and potatoes varies to that of corn and corn-fed animals. Given the fact that they did not consciously eat a diet of corn, Ian and Curt were so surprised that the whole documentary is set about answering the question of how on earth corn managed to get into their hair.

The answer, as you may have guessed, is that corn now dominates the typical western diet. There are over 45,000 items in the American supermarket and over a quarter of them contain corn. It is even more prominent in the fast food industry:

“If you take a McDonald’s meal, you don’t realize it when you eat it, but you’re eating corn. Beef has been corn-fed. Soda is corn. Even the French fries. Half the calories in the French fries come from the fat they’re fried in, which is liable to be either corn oil or soy oil. So when you’re at McDonald’s, you’re eating Iowa food. Everything on your plate is corn”, said Michael Pollan in the King Corn documentary.

The modern rise of corn can be attributed mostly to the changes to the farm subsidy system enacted by Earl Butz, USDA Secretray under Nixon, in the 1970s that turned the world of American agriculture upside down. It encouraged and still encourages gross over production, such that corn has become massively abundant and cheap for the food processing industry to buy.

This also meant that somehow all of this surplus corn had to be consumed by someone or something somewhere in the world and this is having a negative effect on our collective health and the health of the animals we eat. Much of the cheap beef produced for the fast food and cheap food markets, for example, is fed corn in order to fatten it up quickly for slaughter. They are also kept stationary in feedlots so they don’t use up calories moving around. The system has become very efficient, but cows and other ruminants that have traditionally grazed on grass in open fields have not evolved to be eating such a diet and still stay healthy. In fact they get sick, very sick and need regular doses of harmful antibiotics and other drugs to stop them from becoming too sick for our own consumption. I recommend watching 2008’s Food Inc. for more details.

There are two other major tributaries of the vast corn river of America. One leads to the relatively recent ethanol and biofuels industries. The other, as mentioned, flows into industrial foods in the form of High Fructose Corn Syrup and other starches and derivatives of corn.

Yet, just like with the cows we fatten up with corn, we, too, are becoming sick. The world is seeing an unprecedented rise in obesity, type 2 diabetes with earlier and earlier onset in kids, dental caries, diet related cancers and other diseases connected to our food supply. Although the debate rages on, at least in America, much of this surely has to do with the food environments we have created and the fact that HFCS has replaced raw sugar as the number one source of sweetener of industrially produced foods.

Despite what the recent corn processing industry campaigns of Sweet Surprise and Corn Sugar have tried to convince us of, “sugar is not sugar” when it comes to looking at the differences between raw cane sugar and HFCS. This false advertising message is currently being battled over in court as sugar interests have fought back with a legal battle.

The first point of contention is that corn has to go through a heavily chemical, toxic process to turn it into HFCS, whereas raw cane or beet sugar does not. There is nothing natural about that. Relatedly, production of the syrup causes HFCS to have traces of contaminants, including mercury, in it that are not regulated by the FDA, but can be harmful, especially to unborn children. Thirdly, the chemical make up of HFCS is different to that of natural sugar in such a way that the body absorbs the syrup’s fructose and glucose molecules much faster, going straight to the liver and causing system wide shocks. These shocks are linked to the rise of western diseases mentioned previously. For a good lay description of the science behind this, see Dr Mark Hyman’s insightful article.

All this adds to the mounting evidence that our global industrial food system has created unforeseen detrimental effects and each and everyone of us has the power to say no to it. Putting pressure on your governments to rebalance the system to support the production and consumption of healthy whole foods is one major way to affect change. You can make a small step by signing Food & Water Watch’s petition to make the American food system healthy, environmentally sustainable and fair for all.

But you are even more powerful than that! Making your meals at home, with your family, from scratch is a political act. It means that you say no to industrially produced artificial ingredients of western disease. So stick with us in 2012, fall in love with cooking and bring the Extra Virgin lifestyle of healthy, slow and wholesome food to your home. Let’s fight back against the c(orn)olonisation of our bodies and get corn out of our hair for good.