Corn Fed and Fat: The American Problem That is Spreading to Other Countries

At a gluten-free fair a few months ago, a friend briefly saw me and said, “Oh, Melissa, I am so bloated and gaining so much weight lately. I know it is all the corn products I have been eating lately.”

My friend is not alone. Corn has infiltrated the American food supply in a major, yet mostly invisible way, and virtually all Americans eat corn in some form without knowing it. People who begin a gluten-free diet (free of wheat, rye and barley) often are so focused on avoiding gluten that they substitute corn-based foods in place of wheat – repeatedly having corn tortillas instead of flour tortillas, for example – and end up eating a lot more corn-based foods. They gain weight and develop other health problems and don’t understand the reason why. Corn is the reason.

Simply put, corn is a high-carbohydrate, high-glycemic food that fattens up cattle and does the same to us when we eat it in excess. And Americans eat it in excess.

As Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, wrote in a New York Times article, “Our entire food supply has undergone a process of ‘cornification’ in recent years, without our even noticing it.” Corn is the primary ingredient in feed for chicken, pigs and cows that we eat for meat and now even for some farm-raised fish. It is used to make corn oil and partially hydrogenated corn oil, which is found in many snack foods, margarines and baked goods; to make high-fructose corn syrup, the most prevalent, cheapest and perhaps most hazardous of all sweeteners; and to make countless food additives. To get an idea of how corn crazy our food supply is, just go to the supermarket and read the label of virtually any mass-processed, commercial food. You’ll be hard-pressed to find one without corn of some type in its list of ingredients (except for commercial meat, which, of course, isn’t labeled as such but is fattened up on corn nonetheless).

The United States created a food production system where lots of cheap corn was grown. Until recently, corn prices were low, which is why so many Americans, especially underprivileged Americans, eat cheap junk food that in one way or another comes from corn. The U.S. industrialized food production system has created cheap food but it has come at too high a cost. So much corn has created health problems, environmental problems and economic problems galore. As mentioned, corn is a high-glycemic food (one that raises blood sugar quickly to high levels) and a high intake of high-glycemic foods is associated with type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, overeating and more – some of the key health issues Americans face. Corn, especially in the form of corn sweeteners, started to be added into everyday foods by food manufacturers in the early 1980s – the same time period that marked the beginning of the epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes in America.

Corn requires more nitrogen fertilizer and more pesticide than any other crop, so the growing of literally mountains and mountains of corn pollutes U.S. rivers and soil, wreaking havoc on the environment. What’s more, nitrogen fertilizer is made from natural gas, and pesticides are made from oil, so growing so much corn guzzles fossil fuel – something we definitely don’t need in this age of rising gas prices.

Because our whole food supply system is centered around corn, the rising cost of corn spills over into the rising cost of foods across the board. The big-business-centered U.S. food production system has created a mess in more ways than one – and this food-production system is gradually being exported to other countries around the world. (A few examples: China is now second to the United States in terms of amount of corn grown, and China and Japan are big importers of corn. Argentina and Brazil used to have mostly grass-fed beef, but they’re starting to grow corn there now and use it to feed cattle. New Zealand is known for its grass-fed beef and lamb but some of its chickens are now fed corn.)

The record rainfall and flooding in Iowa this spring and the rising cost of gas and oil has caused the price of corn to escalate dramatically. With the price high, there is no better time than right now to pull yourself away from corn in its many forms. Follow these steps to go against the grain (of corn) toward better health:

  1. WatchKing Corn”, a documentary movie that thoroughly explains the industrialized way that corn is grown today, the many foods made from corn, and the health and environmental costs of growing so much cheap corn. In some areas of the United States, PBS may broadcast or may have broadcast the film. You can also rent the DVD from rental places such as Blockbuster Video or NetFlix, but the movie is so good and has so much information to absorb, I highly recommend that you buy a copy of “King Corn” to have for your video library so you can watch it many times.
  2. For more information about why and how to avoid commercially produced corn, read my book Going Against the Grain, which discusses health problems associated with a high corn intake, foods and additives that contain corn, and how common and troublesome genetically engineered corn is (which is what most commercially produced corn is these days!).
  3. Take action by not buying and not eating all foods with corn, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, cornstarch, corn-based food additives, and corn oil in their lists of ingredients. This means cutting out all soft drinks and most condiments, snack foods and baked goods. Make your dollar count by spending your money on foods that promote health, such as fresh vegetables, instead of processed corn products. You’ll be investing in your health instead of adding to big food corporations’ profits.
  4. If you live in the United States, to further reduce your intake of corn, seek out and buy grass-fed meats when you can – or opt for wild, not farmed, fish in place of corn-fed beef. Natural food supermarkets typically sell grass-fed meats and you also usually can find them sold by local grass-fed meat companies at farmer’s markets.
  5. If you live outside of the United States, educate yourself about the growing corn problem by buying a copy of “King Corn.” If you’re a nutritionist or nutrition-oriented doctor in another country, consider buying a copy and showing it to clients and patients or holding public viewings of the film. Even if you think corn doesn’t impact your country the way it does America, it’s important to be educated about the subject so you can protect the health-enhancing food advantages you now enjoy, such as having grass-fed meats or relatively little or no high-fructose corn syrup in your foods.

We can do our part to nudge our food system in the right direction by not putting our money toward cheap, industrially produced, disease-producing food. Instead support companies that produce foods that are naturally and organically raised or grown – the way foods were produced before the “cornification” of our food supply. If we each do our individual parts, we can send a powerful message that we reject the current food production system that promotes obesity and disease and are voting with our dollar for change that promotes health.

References: for the USDA. Corn production (most recent) by country. Figures for 2003/2004. Retrieved July 30, 2008 from

Pollan, Michael. “When a Crop Becomes King.” First written in The New York Times, July 19, 2002. Retrieved on July 30, 2008 from Michael Pollan’s website.

Transcript: Independent Lens: “King Corn.” Retrieved on July 30, 2008, from the Washington Post website.

Woolf, Aaron (director) & Ellis, Curt, and Cheney, Ian (writers). King Corn [documentary motion picture]. USA: Docudrama, 2007.

© Copyright 2008 Melissa Diane Smith

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