I note that, in this week''s Week in Review, Brian Trumbore
refers to the "eccentric" Dr. Bortrum''s outstanding tee-to-green
play in an outing on the golf course last week. I thoroughly
endorse those enthusiastic comments on my play, and thank
Brian for mercifully neglecting to mention my disastrous second
nine holes on that beautiful day. It was truly a beautiful day,
much like the one described in the opening number of
"Oklahoma", now a hit revival on Broadway. In that opening
number, after waxing eloquently about a bright golden haze on a
meadow, the song cuts to the chase with a description of corn as
high as an elephant''s eye that was seemingly climbing clear up to
the sky. Oklahoma is a wonderful, corny musical, using the
colloquial definitions of "corny" as meaning old-fashioned or
Here in the U.S. we have a veritable cornucopia of corn. I was
moved to write about corn, the world''s most widely planted
cereal crop, by an article in the New York Times that Brian
Trumbore called to my attention. The article, "When a Crop
Becomes King", by Michael Pollan, was different in that Pollan
treats his subject from the point of view of corn itself. He tells
how corn has evolved with us humans over many thousands of
years and how it has used its tasty and nutritious qualities to
seduce us into expanding its domain and gene pool all over the
world. We''ve essentially been pawns in corn''s devilish mission
to take over our land and worm its way into virtually every
aspect of our lives.
An indication of the success of the mission is the fact that corn
has taken over some 80 million acres of our country''s real estate.
I looked up the areas of some states and found that corn is king
of an area roughly equivalent to the combined areas of New
York, all of New England and New Jersey put together. Corn
has also tricked us taxpayers into subsidizing its growth to the
tune of $4 billion dollars a year, according to Pollan. These
subsidies allow the farmer to spend $3 to grow a bushel of corn,
sell that bushel for $2 and still continue to grow corn. Corn has
proved very accomplished in the game of politics.
How is the campaign to insinuate itself into our lives going? An
Ontario Corn Producers Association Web site states that out of
some 10,000 items in your typical grocery store, about 2,500 of
them have been produced or processed using corn or one of its
derivatives. If the item doesn''t contain corn in some form, a corn
product has been used somewhere along the line. Take tires, for
example. To make a tire, rubber is poured into a mold. To keep
the rubber from sticking to the mold, cornstarch is sprinkled on
the mold before pouring the rubber. On the other hand, Canadian
Whiskey derives directly from a mix containing about 90 percent
corn, with the remainder rye and barley malt.
Tortillas and other corn products have been staples in the
Mexican diet for centuries, if not millennia. As a child, I often
had a bowl of Kellogg''s Corn Flakes for breakfast. Today, at the
height of sweet corn season, I look forward to dinner and fresh
corn on the cob dripping with Take Control (it used to be butter
before my elevated cholesterol). These are time-honored corn
dishes. What is becoming not so honored is the emergence of
other foods containing corn products. Corn has used its low cost
to incorporate itself into an increasing number of not only human
but also animal feeds.
Let''s look at High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). HFCS is
derived from cornstarch and contains 14 percent fructose,
according to an Oregon State University Web site. Fructose is
75% sweeter than sucrose, common table sugar. In addition to
being cheaper than liquid sugar, HFCS has a number of other
desirable qualities, such as helping to retain moisture. Hence we
find HFCS in all manner of foods ranging from baked goods to
Coke to candies to ice creams. Take a look at the labels and you
may be surprised to find how many of the products you buy
contain corn syrup. Last night, I checked my frozen yogurt and,
sure enough, HFCS was the third ingredient listed. I was
reassured to find my favorite, Breyer''s ice cream, consists of only
milk, cream, sugar and vanilla flavor. Sadly, that cream isn''t too
great for my cholesterol but hey, there''s no fructose.
Why worry about fructose? Offhand, you might think using
HFCS is good. It takes less fructose than it would sugar to get
the same amount of sweetness. The corn syrup is cheaper too, so
soft drink makers, for example, can lower prices - or, offer larger
size bottles at the same price, which is what happened.
Replacing sugar with corn syrup really took off in the 1980s,
spurring new kinds of snack foods and drinks. Today, according
to Pollan, 10 percent of the calories ingested by adults in the U.S.
comes from corn sweeteners. For some children, this could be
even 20 percent!
Is it a coincidence that the introduction of HFCS in foods began
in earnest in the 1980s and that the obesity trend began about the
same time? Possibly. Consider too the results of studies at the
University of Minnesota, where they have an active research
program into various aspects of diabetes. Fructose has long had
the reputation of being a relatively "safe" sugar for diabetics.
Unlike sucrose, fructose supposedly doesn''t trigger a blood sugar
rise. While this appears to be true, remember that diabetics also
have a greater than normal risk for developing heart disease.
Early studies at Minnesota and elsewhere in humans and in rats
have shown, however, that fructose raised substantially the levels
of triglycerides and LDL (bad cholesterol), both indicators of
increased heart disease risk.
Did I mention that the meat that we eat comes from cows,
chickens and pigs fed - you guessed it, corn? Even farm-raised
fish such as salmon are being taught to eat corn-derived food, not
exactly what the fish were used to in their native habitat. Back in
the good old days, cattle grazed on the grasses found in those
meadows with the bright golden haze on them. The substitution
of corn-based feed apparently didn''t agree with their digestive
systems and the cattle became prone to disease and infection.
What to do? Feed them antibiotics. Not to worry about creating
drug-resistant bacteria. Furthermore, it seems that steaks and
hamburgers from corn-fed cows have more saturated fat than do
those from grass-fed cows.
I certainly claim no expertise in the field of nutrition but it seems
clear that enough data are available to raise the warning flags.
The other day on one of the early morning TV programs, I saw
an interview with lawyers who are either suing or planning to sue
fast food chains for serving foods that promote obesity. It seems
pretty silly at first blush; after all we''re free to choose our menus,
aren''t we? Nevertheless, the same lawyers were involved in the
tobacco suits and they were quite successful in the long run.
Will corn itself be brought to trial? Can we or should we try to
turn the corner and roll back some of its intrusions into our lives
and spatial domain? Is HFCS as big a problem as preliminary
data indicate? Will some future revival of Oklahoma contain a
revised version of that opening number, perhaps to something
like: "And the wheat is as high as a mountain goat''s eye, And it
looks like it''s ………… (Supply your own lyrics, I''m stuck!)".
Next week - more corn, this time not for eating, but for fueling
your car. Is corn going too far in trying to capture this market?
Allen F. Bortrum