One Nation, Under Corn

Have you all seen the new high fructose corn syrup commercials brought to us by the “health-conscious” Corn Refiner’s Association? Frankly I breathed a sigh of relief when I discovered that this group has finally recognized that the public health is more important than profit. Oh wait. Let me put down my crack pipe.

According to their ads, high fructose corn syrup is “made from corn, has the same calories as sugar, it’s fine in moderation, it doesn’t have artificial ingredients”. Well big freaking deal.
The corn that is used to make commercially refined fructose is commodity corn. Commodity corn is the stuff you see growing all over the Midwest, especially Iowa. Let’s follow the history of this product for a bit.

On a huge monoculture farm (that means they only grow one crop) in the middle of Iowa, a farmer is growing acre upon acre upon acre of corn. This is not the corn your grandpa grew in the backyard garden patch that you threw on the grill with your chicken. This is the corn that goes to feed livestock, and of course, us. Now why is our farmer planting so much corn? Because he is going broke. You see, he’s not the only farmer around growing all this corn; every farmer around him is doing the same thing (you see the same problem with soybeans). Now there is a problem of overproduction and the resulting problem of falling prices. So the logical and obvious problem would be to cut production. Well, this isn’t going to happen because there is no coordinated effort between these farmers to monitor the corn market. What our farmer does know is that we the American taxpayers subsidize every bushel of corn he can produce. So, in order to maintain his cash flow, he plants more corn. And so the cycle continues.

So now you ask, where in the world is all this corn going? Right into your mouths. This corn is fed to cattle, with disastrous results. You see, cows are ruminants, which means they are meant to eat grasses…not corn. Well, you see, we have all this extra corn laying around, so we will feed it to all these cows living on their giant feces-filled feedlots. This corn makes cows sick; it is too starchy for them to digest. The corn causes them to bloat and acidifies their rumen (their digestive organ that enables them to process grasses), which in turn can ulcerate, sending bacteria into the bloodstream and abscessing the liver. This problem is fixed by shooting them up with toxic antibiotics, such as Rumensin. This drug is so toxic in fact that humans and even dairy cows cannot take it. This is the beef you will find on the shelves at most grocery stores and restaurants (both fast food and “finer” dining establishments). And corn is not reserved for cattle alone; because of this huge surplus of corn and the cheapness of feeding animals with it, the USDA is encouraging the use of corn feed with pigs, chickens, and even fish (corn-fed salmon anyone?).

So the animals are fed, but there is still all this corn. What else can be done with it? Well, scientists discovered some time ago that corn is a starch that can be easily broken down and reassembled as a myriad of sweeteners and additives. And guess what? These sweeteners are cheaper than sugar and these additives are a cheap substitute for real flavor and quality products. Sweeteners made from corn include corn syrups, dextrose, high fructose corn syrups, and crystalline fructose. Basic corn syrups can be found in salad dressings, condiments, and canned fruits. Dextrose is used to sweeten jams, jellies, chewing gum, and even low calorie beer. High fructose corn syrup can be found in virtually every processed food, ice creams, soft drinks, and so-called “light” foods. Crystalline fructose is used in presweetened cereals and other dry mix products.

The list of food additives derived from corn is staggering:
Calcium lactate or stearate
Calcium stearoyl lactylate
Dextrin or Dextrose
Ethyl maltol
Fumaric or Lactic acid
Gluconolactone or Glucono delta-lactone
Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
Linoleic acid
Malt, Maltodextrin, Maltose or Maltol
Potassium gluconate
Propylene glycol monostearate
Sodium ascorbate or other ascorbates
Sodium stearoyl fumarate
Sodium-, Magnesium-, Calcium- or Potassium-fumarate
Stearyl citrate
Tocopherol (alpha-Tocopherol, vitamin E)

These additives run rampant on the list of ingredients of processed mass-produced foods and fast foods. Pretty much anything that comes in a box and is found in the center aisles of your grocery store are going to contain both corn sweeteners and additives. Why? The answer again, is cost. We take all this cheap corn we still have around and use it to sweeten, flavor, thicken, stabilize, and preserve inferior food products.

Why are we as a nation (and increasingly as a global population) so accepting of these practices? One answer is ignorance. We are under the impression that institutions such as the USDA and FDA, the American Beef Council, and the Corn Refiner’s Association, are all joining hands and forces to make the world a better and healthier place. In reality, it once again boils down to money. Money from the government to farmers, money from the ranching and farming associations back to the government, profits for the giant food conglomerates, profits for the restaurant chains, profits for the grocery store chains. The reality is that none of them truly give a damn about you or your family’s health. They turn a blind eye to the effects of their products and their marketing campaigns on us and our children.

We cannot, however, place all the blame solely on the producers. We are just as culpable and need to hold ourselves accountable for our own decisions and habits. We have conditioned ourselves into a nation of convenience and speed. We have taken the tools of modern industry and applied them blindly to food. We as imperfect human beings have decided that the food products we have engineered are much better than anything God created to sustain us. We have chosen to become a sedentary society. We take the supersize option in the name of savings, blow through the drive-through to save time, and add water to a box of dried nothingness because we think it tastes good. Well guess what? We are reaping the consequences with no apparent benefits. Supersizing our meals (and this includes huge portion sizes at home) has added additional calories to each meal, energy which will not be burned off anytime soon as we sit on front of the TV or at our desks at work. We have now supersized ourselves. We go through the restaurant drive-through, scarfing our food on the go and forcing our kids to do the same, ingesting that delightful commodity corn in everything from our hamburger meat, the bun, the “special sauce” , the fries, and our bucket of soda. And don’t think you are doing better if you opt for the “grilled” chicken option. Do you think the kid getting paid minimum wage working in the bowels of your local burger joint is actually grilling anything? Heck no! The fact is “grill flavor” has been added to your chicken…an additive derived from none other than (drum roll please) corn!

But we are just so busy! And the people at Hormel/Kraft/Nabisco/Insert Name Here have created this wonderful product where all I have to do is open this box, throw the contents into a crock pot, add water, and turn it on! Let’s think about this. The “food” you are supposedly preparing is allegedly meat, vegetables, and potatoes, all foods that will spoil in their natural form. So how do we keep them from going bad? Let’s put it all in a box, add preservatives and additives, and presto! It’s a miracle! Pot roast in a box that will keep for two years!
Of course now we see that we are getting fat and developing diseases such as diabetes and heart disease at an accelerated rate and at younger and younger ages. Our child has the heart of a forty-five year old and can’t walk up the steps at school without getting winded. So what do we do? Bring on the Lean Cuisine! I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but the same stuff you find in the foods that are making us fat are also found in these so-called healthy foods. Not to mention their sodium content. What about low-fat and low calorie and enriched and fortified? Aren’t food products that make these claims going to make me healthier? Most likely no. More and more researchers are finding that when you remove naturally occurring fat and calories and fortify with vitamins and minerals that are not naturally there, your body does not reap the benefits of these foods (For example, vitamin D is fat-soluble. When you remove the fat from food, the vehicle for absorption is no longer there. The same with adding such vitamins to food that don’t contain fat. We will explore all of this at a later date.).

So how does all of this pertain to the HFCS commercials now showing on our televisions? Well, think about the answer to this question as you sit on your couch all night watching Desperate Housewives, eating your Big Mac (with a Diet Coke of course), and watching your nine-year-old daughter try on her new clothes from the junior’s department.

But please do not become completely despondent. There are solutions to these problems, and I hope to address them in writings to come. In the meantime, go eat an apple…and take a walk.


Cold Weather, Warm Pot

The weather the past few days was such a tease; I know we are completely in the throes of winter when 45 degrees feels absolutely balmy and I go running around with no coat. Of course this did not last. Upon leaving dinner last night the icy fingers of winter scooped us up in their frigid grip and needlessly reminded us that it is still merely January and we cannot truly hope for consistently warm weather until at least May.

Sigh...I truly dislike cold weather. Of course I wouldn't appreciate warm weather nearly as much if we did not have its opposite. Curse you logic!

There are few things about these cold long months that I appreciate, much less get excited about. I do love Christmas in all its celebratory glory, but I always brace myself for the dreariness of the new year. Everything is bare and stripped of life, and every year I wonder if the trees, flowers, and even weeds will stir up the motivation to grow again, casting their vivid contrast to the overwhelming greyness.

What I can appreciate, and in fact look somewhat forward to, are the foods of winter. This is the time of year when I can use the oven everyday without turing the kitchen into a sauna. I can make those long-cooked super-savory dishes that are just too heavy and hot for the summer months. I can braise, I can roast, I can bake, I can long- simmer, coaxing big flavors out of simple ingredients.

I have come to realize during this never-ending month of January that these winter cooking methods lend themselves beautifully to our country's current circumstances. The economy is greatly struggling and money is tight; food prices are ridiculous, jobs are disappearing and companies are folding. These are not filet and porterhouse times; these are short rib and oxtail times. These are the times when those so-called "cheap" cuts of meat shine in all their fatty and flavorful glory.

Over the past few weeks I have made chicken carbonnade (made with chicken thighs, which frankly are much more flavorful and cheaper than breasts), porter beer braised short ribs, and braised oxtails with chorizo. What is also so wonderful about these dishes is that their accompaniments are usually cost-efficient as well: onions, garlic, carrot, celery, bacon, egg noodles, white rice. These meals have been satisfying in so many ways. I appreciate that I don't have to spend a ridiculous amount of money to obtain full, bold flavor. I know that I have supported local farmers by buying their products for my family to eat. Most of all, I enjoy creating these dishes, patiently waiting for them to show their personalities and savoring them with complete satisfaction.