Monday, August 17, 2009

King Corn and the corn people

I've written before about the book In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, by Michael Pollan — "In Defense of Food: Growing your own" and "In Defense of Food: Nutritionism and breastfeeding." In my enthusiasm over the book, I've quoted and recapped pretty much the whole thing to my husband. Although Sam seemed intrigued, it didn't inspire him to crack open the book himself.

But this had happened before, and I knew what to do. Awhile ago, I first read Unconditional ParentingUnconditional Parenting, by Alfie Kohn, and marveled at the mind-blowing I received. I discovered there was an Unconditional Parenting DVD, which our library carried. Bingo! It was absolutely perfect. It translated the main points of the book into a limited-timeframe format. Sam enjoyed it so much that he recommends the DVD to other parents without the energy to add another book to their reading list.

Please note that I am not faulting Sam for this. When I enjoyed In Defense of Food, I subsequently checked out Michael Pollan's longer tome, The Omnivore's Dilemma. I checked it out about six times and never got past the intro. At 464 pages, it just wasn't happening.

So I understood the reluctance to dive into a book, for whatever reason. But to share my experience with Sam, was there a companion DVD to In Defense of Food? Well, sorta.

King Corn DVDWhat I found was King Corn.

King Corn, directed by Aaron Woolf, is a documentary that follows two school friends, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, from East Coast city life to the fields of Iowa, where they pursue a dream to grow one acre of corn and then track where that corn ends up. They basically want to see if it's true, as Michael Pollan and other food gurus contend, that corn is as ubiquitous a part of the American (or, broadly speaking, the Westernized) diet as they say it is.

Short answer: yes.

We have switched from being omnivores who eat real, whole food, to being consumers of processed, food-like substances, and in all of our meals corn and soy reign supreme. (Soy doesn't get as much mention in this film, what with the title of King Corn and all, but it's becoming just as insidious.)

If you're like me and you have something processed handy (a bag of Cheetos, say, or a bottle of ketchup), go and grab it and see if you can find the corn and soy that are abundant within its hallows.

Here are some words that can mean corn is present: anything with the word "corn," such as corn flour, cornstarch, corn gluten, corn syrup, corn meal, high fructose corn syrup; but then also such seemingly innocuous entities as baking powder, caramel coloring, confectioner's sugar, malt, starch, modified food starch, treacle, vanilla extract, vegetable protein, and vegetable shortening; as well as such chemically obtuse ingredients as dextrin, maltodextrin, dextrose, fructose, monoglycerides, diglycerides, MSG, sorbitol, sucrose, and xantham gum.

And here are some that indicate soy: anything with the word "soy," such as soybean oil, isolated soy protein, soy protein concentrate, soy isoflavones, etc.; lecithin; hydrolyzed vegetable protein; textured vegetable protein; margarine; teriyaki; and my favorite, natural flavors; among others!

But forgetting specific ingredients, what King Corn demonstrates is that corn is even more widespread than that. Corn is present in beef, for instance, because cattle in feed lots are fattened on corn meal instead of their natural food of grass. Corn makes an appearance in pesticides and packaging; its oil fries up our fatty foods; and we even fuel our cars with corn-derived ethanol. The government subsidizes corn growing, and keeps thinking up new ways to grow more — and then use up — this one crop.

The upshot is that we have become a people of corn. We are what we eat — our hair samples demonstrate that we are increasingly made up of this popular ingredient, with as much as 50% of our diet coming from corn.

To make a people of corn, our country has become corn-reliant. The movie shows, in cute stop-animated motion featuring the Fisher-Price farmhouse I remember from my youth, how farmland has been swallowed up by corn, and how farms have gone from variety to monoculture, from family-owned to corporate.

For all that, King Corn is rather gentle in its rhetoric. It's not out to make the Iowan farmers feel bad. I really appreciated the way Cheney and Ellis spoke courteously with everyone in their new town and listened to the stories around them. It turns out that the corn farmers already know there's something wrong with the priorities in food growing, but it's one of those complicated situations where it isn't easy to figure out what the "right" thing to do is and, then, how to accomplish it. The guys grow their corn the way the other Iowans are doing it, with loads of fertilizer and pesticide, and using the standard strain that's become widespread throughout the Midwest, but it's unclear if growing it organically would make a difference, or would change the outcome.

King Corn DVD -- Ian Cheney and Curt EllisIn one scene, the filmmakers try eating one of their freshly grown ears of corn — and they spit it out in disgust. What's taking over America's heartland isn't the sweet corn you buy to grill up with butter and salt for Fourth of July, and it's not one of the many varieties that were once natively grown on this soil in the pre-Pilgrim days. It's inedible food-processing material, fit only for animals who can't choose better for themselves and for disguising through chemical processes into some form of food-ish product.

Because the guys can't gain entrance into any high-fructose corn syrup manufacturing plant, they finally get someone to tell them the recipe over the phone. It's a horrifying concoction that includes unfamiliar enzymes and requires face masks and gloves to create. It's about as far from "cooking" as you can imagine. At the end of it all — a sickly sweet syrup. That syrup goes into almost every processed food out there, not just things we typically think of as sweets, but even things like breads and condiments and toothpaste.

I recommend this film as a good intro into the ideas of In Defense of Food or Weston A. Price — the general idea that Americans are not eating right. The film doesn't go much into what Americans then should be eating, but it's probably pretty easily guessed: real, whole, unprocessed food. That doesn't allow, of course, for the fact that some of what seems to be just that is actually processed food in disguise, such as our meat that comes from corn-fed, antibiotic-injected animals or our produce that comes from pesticide-sprayed, genetically modified fields. That's where paying attention to the origins of foods comes into play, and where eating what's termed a "traditional foods" diet can help.

I'd like to talk more about traditional foods in the future. I read about one blogger who did a traditional foods challenge, eating only foods that your great-great-grandmother would recognize as food, for a month. I wanted to do the same and picked July as my target, since we had parents visiting in June and August. I figured our summer was going to be pretty relaxing, so I'd have plenty of time to soak beans and simmer grains. And then we decided to buy a house, and everything just went all stupid. We've been stressed and haven't had much time to cook; we're trying to use up what's in the pantry and freezer before we move; and we keep turning to comfort foods to wallow. When I write about these issues of eating good foods, I want to confess right now that I am no hero of the movement. I am learning and wishing and rather pathetically trying. I figured at some point that I'd share more of that journey with you.

Remember how I said that, in the end, the situation was complicated? The filmmakers have to decide what to do with their own little one-acre harvest, in much the same way that each of us has to decide what to eat and what to promote with our grocery dollars. But it all feels like a very little drop in the bucket when it comes to influencing the government's obsession with corn, or the culture's addiction (and my own) to cheap, convenient, tasty food.

Next up is changing my own habits before tackling the world's... But, first, a couple more DVDs to watch. I really enjoyed Super Size Me, and The Corporation is what convinced me to switch to organic milk if nothing else; if you're looking for something more hard-hitting, try these. I'm interested in seeing Food, Inc., but unfortunately our library doesn't carry the DVD, only the Participant Guide.

Still, maybe I've seen enough now to convince me. Our plan when moving into our new place is to transfer only worthy foods, and anything that is purchased for it must be equally sanctioned. Sometimes it's best to make a clean break, right?

Time to dethrone corn and regain my status as an omnivore.

5 comments:

Cave Mother said...

Hi there
Sorry this is not on topic, but I passed an award on to you because I have only just recently discovered your blog, and I am totally in awe of your detailed, well researched articles.

Cave Mother

missy said...

i have to agree about being in awe of your posts! (but that's not why i stopped to comment)

i'm currently reading the omnivore's dilemma (what are the chances of me stumbling upon this book and your blog all right before you post about it?!). i'm a bit more than halfway through, and i encourage you to have another go at it! i'll have to check out the in defense of food books. i guess i'm basically at the same point as you.. learning, wishing, pathetically trying. we really dont have money in our budget for organic foods and it's frustrating to have no options! (sort of like the lack of a diaper service or washing maching). anyway, i'd love to read about your food journey!

side note: i was reading this and the author was sort of blaming the whole chemical fertilizer thing on justus von liebig because he's the one that discovered that the plants need the NPK to grow. and i was thinking 'hm.. why do i know that name?' well, i looked him up, and he's also the guy that made the first baby formula. crazy! i'm guessing i came across his name before when i was reading milk, money and madness.

sorry, this is a really long comment.

Lisa - edenwild said...

Great post. I wrote down a bunch of titles for my "to read and watch" list. I was talking to someone recently about one of the In Defense of Food books.

Let me just say: Give yourself a break. It takes a long time to get out of the processed food trap. Well, if you can make a clean break, go for it! Mine has been a long journey that isn't quite over but I am getting closer every year. I used to think junk food was chips, soda, sweets, etc. Well, my list of junk food keeps growing--now it includes any food I consider to be overly processed.

It's quite true, corn and soy are in everything! I can't even eat a lovely organic chocolate bar without consuming soy!

I used to consider organic too expensive, but I've ended up buying mostly organic produce out of convenience since that's mostly what my grocery store carries, and I've not noticed much increase in my bill because I am making more food from scratch and buying less meat.

Hobo Mama said...

Cave Mother: Aw, cool! Thanks so much, and what an honor. I will have to go get the badge and pass it on.

Missy: I will give The Omnivore's Dilemma another crack. I like the concept of tracing four meals to their origins. I think I got bogged down in the intro, because it was reiterating (or preiterating, actually) what I read in In Defense of Food, only longer. I'll give myself permission to skip ahead this time.

And isn't it weird about that Justus von Liebig connection! Clearly he was big into deconstructing nutrition. It's astonishing that we all still follow his ideas in terms of plant fertilization, just refining it over time instead of saying, "Wait, what? Maybe it's not as simplistic as all that." Formula, too -- we try to make it more like breastmilk by adding bits and pieces; it's a really odd, limited scientific view.

P.S. If you can't tell, I'm all for long comments.

Lisa: I think I will make a list much like yours. I'm trying not to get bogged down in details (supplements, diets, nutrients, etc.) but just reach for lovely, lovely food. Whole foods, organic foods, recognizable foods.

I like hearing your take on organics and price. That's a good point, that cooking from scratch will force us into eating cheaper even if not every individual food is cheaper. I'm such a cheapskate that it's been very hard for me (and hard for me to convince Sam) that it's good to buy something that costs more but is better for your body and for the planet. In Defense of Food sort of jolted me into redefining my priorities there, that I am in some ways voting with my food dollars, and I want to support local, family-run, earth-friendly, high-quality food sources. That means I might have to pay more, but I ultimately get more from it. And, frankly, I could stand to eat less anyway! :)

rnmr said...

As a Canadian living with socialized medicine, which is truly wonderful, I don't think bringing in healthcare reform will change people's diets. Here in Canada, we still have a lot of obesity and high fructose corn syrup in our foods. In fact, Canadian ketchup is sweeter than American ketchup.

It is education and lifestyle choices that will ultimately change people's health outcomes.

I read the Omnivore’s Dilemma and started to look at how pervasive corn is in our ‘natural’ bath and body products.

My company makes castile soap and I have created a video called ” Are You Washing With Corn”- view http://mountainskysoap.com/corn.php

People have to make choices as to what they buy, as that will drive the market, their health and the planet's overall sustainability.

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