The Nearly Unbelievable Prevalence of Corn:
What You Don't Realize It's In Will Astound You
Take a drive through one of the still undeveloped regions in the Midwest and you're sure to see it: acre after acre of corn crops, which around this time are just beginning to sprout.
The United States is the largest corn producer in the world.
It's a peaceful scene; one that conjures images of lazy summer days and side-of-the-road fruit stands. But all of that corn comes at a price, which we'll explain later.
First, it helps to get an idea of the magnitude of corn crops in the United States.
This country is, by far, the largest producer of corn in the world, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- and corn is the crop leader in the U.S.
In 2006, for instance, there were over 78 million acres of corn planted in the United States, for a total production of 10.5 billion bushels (and nearly $34 billion), according to the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA).
Just what does one bushel of corn amount to? NCGA explains that one bushel of corn (56 pounds) provides ONE of the following:
The bushel also provides 13.5 pounds of gluten animal feed and 2.6 pounds of gluten meal, along with 1.5 pounds of corn oil.
What is going to become of all that corn on a more specific level might shock you.
Way Beyond Corn on the Cob
Corn is a highly political issue because it is one of the most subsidized crops in the United States. As a result, it's vastly overproduced and vastly overconsumed in most American diets.
Think about it. Corn is used as a feed for cows and chickens, it's used as a sweetener (high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)), it's eaten directly (corn chips) and it's used as an oil. And according to this article in The Christian Science Monitor:
Of 10,000 items in a typical grocery store, at least 2,500 use corn in some form during production or processing.
If you're wondering where corn is hidden in your diet, consider that all of the following foods contain some form of corn, either directly or indirectly:
Hamburgers (the cows eat corn)
Eggs (the chickens eat corn)
Soda and other sweetened drinks (HFCS)
Processed foods (corn oil, corn meal, corn starch, corn gluten, corn flour, etc.)
Corn is also used to manufacture a host of non-food products like paint, paper products, cosmetics, tires, fuel, plastics, textiles, explosives, and wallboard.
The corn sweeteners added to many U.S. food products have been blamed for obesity and other health problems.
Why is All This Corn a Problem?
Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, said in perfectly in an interview in The Christian Science Monitor:
"We're producing way too much corn. So, we make corn sweeteners. High-fructose corn sweeteners are everywhere. They've completely replaced sugar in sodas and soft drinks. They make sweet things cheaper. We also give it to animals.
Corn explains everything about the cattle industry. It explains why we have to give [cattle] antibiotics, because corn doesn't agree with their digestive system. It explains why we have this E.coli 0157 problem, because the corn acidifies their digestive system in such a way that these bacteria can survive.
And we subsidize this overproduction. We structure the subsidies to make corn very, very cheap, which encourages farmers to plant more and more to make the same amount of money. The argument is that it helps us compete internationally.
The great beneficiaries are the processors that are using corn domestically. We're subsidizing obesity. We're subsidizing the food-safety problems associated with feedlot beef. It's an absolutely irrational system. The people who worry about public health don't have any control over agricultural subsidies.
The USDA is not thinking about public health. The USDA is thinking about getting rid of corn. And, helping [businesses] to be able to make their products more cheaply -- whether it's beef or high-fructose corn syrup. Agribusiness gives an immense amount of funding to Congress."
It bears repeating that too much corn in your diet, particularly in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, has been linked to numerous health problems, including:
If you want to reduce the amount of corn in your diet, the first thing to do is to give up all soft drinks and other sweetened beverages. Then start checking labels meticulously. Even products that you wouldn't think contain corn often do (like grain-fed meats, canned goods and most other processed items). Your best bet is to focus on natural, whole foods like fruits and veggies, grass-fed meats, and whole grains (and if you're looking for some unique, healthy recipe ideas, be sure to check out Alive in 5: Raw Gourmet Meals in 5 Minutes).
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National Corn Growers Association
U.S. EPA: Major Crops Grown in the United States
Grist April 24, 2008