Everything on Your Plate Is Corn | History, Disease & Pesticides
By Christopher Walker
“It’s in almost every product in the supermarket today,” states says Betty Fussell1, author of The Story of Corn. “That’s no exaggeration.”
“Our entire diet has been colonized by this one plant,” says author Michael Pollan2.
This popular ingredient is corn, and the history and politics of this plant are sure to surprise you. We encourage you to keep an open mind as we will challenge everything you think you know about corn and what’s on your plate.
The Surprising History of Corn
Unlike many crops cultivated by humans, corn — as we know it today — never existed in the wild. In fact, it wasn’t until recently that archeologists and geneticists were able to pinpoint the origin of corn. It turns out, that corn has evolved and thrived because of the efforts of humans, both past and present.
Corn seed is unique. It’s considered a grain, a fruit and a vegetable3 all at once. Corn is a vegetable because it is harvested for eating; it’s a fruit because of its botanical definition; and it’s a grain because “it’s a dry seed of a grass species.
Corn was cultivated from a wild grass called teosinte, or maize, in central Mexico about 9,000 years ago. Teosinte originally had skinny ears — about a dozen small kernels that were spaced far apart — and it didn’t look anything like the modern corn of today.
(Left) The evolution of ancient teosinte from grain to modern-day corn. (Right) A bag of genetically modified corn seed that has been developed to withstand harsh pesticides and herbicides. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Maize spread to different parts of Mexico and Peru. Native Americans eventually brought maize into North America about 1,000 years ago. By that time, it became a major staple in the Native American diet.
They cultivated three main crops, called the “three sisters,” which were maize, climbing beans and squash. Native Americans ultimately invented the modern way of rotating crops to promote soil health because beans fortified the soil, squash provided a natural cover for the ground that helped to retain moisture and prevent weeds from growing and corn stalks allowed beans to climb4.
Corn Spread to Europe and Then Back Again
Corn was not consumed in any other part of the world until Christopher Columbus brought corn seeds amongst other edible crops back to Europe after he “discovered” America in 1493. Corn was able to grow in many different soil types, and its abundant growth was one of the contributing factors that led to the boom in European population.
Centuries later, when Europeans pilgrims returned to the New World, they brought with them oxen, plows and tools. Equipped with new strains of seeds and farming technology, settlers cultivated corn on a massive scale that still continues to this day.
Courtesy: James Kennedy Monash
For the next 300 years or so, corn was the primary dietary staple for farmers, prisoners and slaves because it was extremely cheap to produce. The Industrial Revolution compounded both the affordability and availability of corn with the invention of the iron plow, which led to large swaths of the Midwest being filled with rows and rows of corn.
Railroads and canneries also helped to maximize the popularity of corn. Corn was preserved, canned and shipped along new routes that transported it to ever corner of the continent. By the 1930’s, new agricultural practices, such as industrial fertilizers, the use of commercial tractors and new hybrid corn strains helped farmers grow more corn than ever before.
“The number of bushels of corn per acre doubled, and then continued to rise each year,” writes Paul Roberts in his book5, “The End of Food.”
Because corn was readily available, it quickly became a main staple of the American diet by the 1950s, and consumption hasn’t slowed down since. Today, Americans grow and eat more corn that anywhere else in the world!
The Origin of High-Fructose Corn Syrup
High-fructose corn syrup was invented in 1957. It’s essentially artificial sweetening syrup produced by milling corn to make corn starch. It’s then processed into corn syrup by adding enzymes to create fructose. The man-made syrup is sweeter than sugar, and it’s much cheaper. When the price of sugar rose in the 1970s, high-fructose corn syrup quickly made its way into the American food supply.
Today, high-fructose corn syrup is the primary artificial sweetener used in most processed food and drink.
The Three Types of Corn
Corn is grown all over the world. There are countless varieties that can be classified into three main types6.
The three major types of corn: sweet, flint and field corn. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
- Sweet Corn: This is the corn on the cob most of us know and love; however only 1% of sweet corn is actually grown in America.
- Flint Corn: This type of corn has a harder outer shell and a soft center, and is mainly used for popcorn.
- Field Corn: Also known as dent corn, this is the most common type of corn that Americans grow and eat.
While most of us picture a mouthwatering cob of corn corn, the truth is that most of us consume field corn, which we likely have never heard about or seen. “People have this kind of nostalgic understanding of corn,” says Fussell. “They think of corn on the cob and popcorn. But the truth is that field corn is what we are really talking about when we talk about the dominance of corn in the United States.”
Where Can You Find Corn?
Many nutritionists point out that it’s easier to count which foods do not contain corn than those that do! “So dominant has this giant grass become that of the 45,000-odd items in American supermarkets, more than one quarter contain corn,” states Pollan.
Part of its allure is that corn is so versatile and can be made into:
- Food Fillers
A great example is high-fructose corn syrup, which has become a cheaper substitute for sugars that are added to beverages and processed foods. It has become “the most valuable food product refined from corn, accounting for 530 million bushels every year,” explains Pollan.
Corn can be found in:
- Potato chips
- French Fries
- Baked Goods
- Salad Dressing
Boy’s clubs were organized around the cultivation of corn. They awarded boys prizes worth more than $40,000 were offered in the 600 counties organized, but those most valued were the diplomas issued by the Secretary of Agriculture and by the governors of the different states. Courtesy: Library of Congress
A Virginia boys club member who grew 209 bushels-of corn on his acre. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
How Can Corn Be Found in Poultry and Fish?
Corn is the most ubiquitous ingredient in feed for cows, pigs, turkeys, chickens and fish. Most animals raised as food eat more corn than most humans.
The result: Corn is everywhere — inside of the meat we eat, the side dishes we enjoy with it, appetizers, snacks and even drinks.
Food historian Michael Pollan uses the chicken nugget as a powerful example of the omnipresence of corn. While it’s often assumed that chicken nuggets are fried in bread crumbs, Pollan reveals they’re just “piles corn upon corn.” The chicken meat contains corn, as does “the modified corn starch that glues the thing together, the corn flour in the batter that coats it, and the corn oil in which it gets fried. Much less obviously, the leavenings and lecithin, the mono-, di-, and triglycerides, the attractive golden coloring, and even the citric acid that keeps the nugget ‘fresh’ can all be derived from corn.”
The Nutrients That Processing Removes From Corn
Corn does have nutrients when it’s not refined or processed, such as:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
- B Vitamins
Corn’s Role in Human Disease
Corn is a vegetable and a fruit. So it seems like it should be pretty healthy, right? In moderation, sweet corn and even the corn used to make popcorn can be beneficial. However, the sheer amount of over-cultivated corn varieties the average U.S. consumer eats poses many concerns for our health.
While we may not be aware, Americans typically consume genetically modified and lab-processed corn such as refined corn oil and high-fructose corn syrup. These types of corn products can be extremely detrimental to our health, and they have long-lasting consequences.
Regular starchy carbohydrates contain glucose, which the body breaks down to use as energy. As its name implies, high-fructose corn syrup has a large amount of fructose. Fructose does not regulate the release of insulin, a hormone in the pancreas that controls how much sugar from carbs your body can either utilize for energy or store away for later use.
Insulin is required to control blood sugar levels from spiking or dropping. Since high-fructose corn syrup doesn’t regulate insulin, it can lead to Type-II diabetes. A study7 “found that Type II diabetes mellitus is 20 percent higher in countries that eat lots of this manufactured sugar in processed foods, like soda, ketchup, yogurt and bread. What’s more: the U.S. tops the list, consuming 55 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup per person each year—out of a whopping 151 pounds of added sugar overall.”
Up to a few decades ago, the only source of fructose we consumed came in limited amounts from fruits and vegetables. Therefore, our bodies are just not designed to handle the amounts of 7 we consume today.
The high amount of fructose in high-fructose corn syrup has been linked to obesity in many studies. Fructose doesn’t increase the amount of leptin in the body, which signals to our brain that we are full. As a result, when we drink oversized sugar-laden sodas or eat cookies full of high-fructose corn syrup, our brain still thinks we are hungry, causing us to overeat.
Sources explain8 that “in the U.S., on average, a 12 oz serving (12 oz = 1 can of soda =1 serving) of soda provides 150 calories and 40–50 grams of sugar in the form of high fructose corn syrup (45 percent glucose and 55 percent fructose), which is equivalent to 10 teaspoons of table sugar. If these calories are added to the typical U.S. diet without reducing intake from other sources, 1 soda per day could lead to a weight gain of 15 lb, or 6.75 kg in 1 year.”
The amounts of fructose consumed because of the modern diet can lead to serious health conditions, such as fatty liver disease. One study 9 confirms this as eating too much fructose over a three-week period was found to increase liver fat by 27%.
A vintage print commercial alerting farmers to a new variety of high-yield corn. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Other Health Concerns
Numerous studies have found that consumption of high fructose can lead to these detrimental conditions:
- Heart Disease
- Faster than normal cell aging
- Reduced life expectancy
Genetic Modification and Pesticides
Over 90% of all corn grown in the U.S. has genetically modified organisms (GMO). This means that structure of corn seed is altered through cell-invasion technology in order to increase yield and fight off pests and infections such as ringworm.
Conventional corn is treated with pesticides like RoundUp, a weed killer that has made many headlines recently for its toxic properties. Ironically, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) registers corn itself as an insecticide. That’s because big agriculture has created corn seeds that sprout insecticide on itself during the growing stage. Genetically modified corn called Mon 863 makes a toxin called Bacillus thuringiensis, also known as Bt, which prevents ringworm.
Courtesy: Genetic Literacy Project
The Committee for Independent Research and Information on Genetic Engineering stated10, “we’ve proven that GMO are neither sufficiently healthy nor proper to be commercialized … Each time, for all three GMOs, the kidneys and liver, which are the main organs that react to a chemical food poisoning, had problems,” said Gilles-Eric Séralini, an expert member of the Commission for Biotechnology Reevaluation.
Here are just a few examples of the dangers of genetically-modified corn.
- Liver, blood and kidney abnormalities in rats 11
- Reproductive problems, such as lower fertility and lower body weight in the offspring of mice, cows and pigs 12
- Reduced immune function in mice 13
- Spontaneous death of several types of animals 14
- Hepatorenal toxicity (kidney failure) in rats 15
The Disturbing Politics of Corn
Numerous studies and non-governmental organizations confirm that consuming genetically-modified and over-cultivated, conventional corn is harming consumers. So why doesn’t the government act to protect the health of Americans?
Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. Bureau of Special Services. Courtesy: National Archives
Prior to the 1970s, most foods were sweetened with cane sugar, which is a healthier variety of sugar when consumed in moderate amounts. However, domestic farmers grow more corn than cane sugar, which the government encourages and supports with farm subsides. In fact, the U.S. subsidizes about $4.5 billion per year to U.S. corn farmers16. This financial underwriting keeps the price of corn low, and they’ve inspired agricultural companies to continue to cultivate corn and produce high-fructose corn syrup.
In the contest between health and profit, profit frequently takes priority in the U.S. The irony is that while the government strives to help domestic agricultural companies make a profit, they unwittingly create a cycle where farmers grow as much corn as possible to make money, but the vast amount of that corn leads to lower prices. Currently, the price is of corn is less than what it costs farmers to grow it. The only reason that the industry is thriving is because of government subsidies, which taxpayers sponsor with tax dollars!
What do we do with all of this cheap, subsidized corn? We put it in everything.
“At the base of the national food chain is a single species of grass–corn–and its growth, processing, and sale constitute a titanic industry which is focused on increasing profits rather than health and well-being,” according to Pollan17.
Why Corn Is in Everything We Eat
Corn is an ingredient in nearly everything we eat. Wether it’s been mixed into beverages as an artificial sweetener or as an additive in livestock feed, corn is the most ubiquitous vegetable on the planet.
A chief culprit in the pervasiveness of corn is the subsidy cycle created by lobbyists, organizations and individuals that are paid to sway the government to pass laws that favor their corporate constituents over public health.
Lawmakers often make powerful decisions using research funded by agricultural companies and food corporations who have a vested interest in corn production. For example, in 2005 a German court ordered Monsanto to release the results of a report about the health impact of genetically-modified crops that the company was trying to keep secret. The court ruled18 that Monsanto’s claims on the safety of genetically-modified corn were unscientific and contradictory; “the study is so full of flaws and omissions, critics say it wouldn’t qualify for publication in most journals and yet it is the primary document used to evaluate the health impacts.”
In many instances, corn manufacturers have gone to great lengths to hide or rig the results of their testing. In fact, a former Monsanto scientist claims19 that his colleagues were forced to rewrite the results of a GMO corn study when they found it caused harm to rats.
5 Things You Can Do to Curb Conventional Corn
There may come a time when our elected officials decide to take our health seriously, but until then, there are some things you can do.
1. Only Purchase Organic Products When They Contain Corn
While the majority of sweet corn does not contain GMOs, you can never be sure. That is the only way you can be sure that the foods you are eating aren’t altered in a lab or are laden with pesticides.
2. Understand the Different Forms of Corn-Based Additives
Learn to read nutrition labels so you can see for yourself if the food or drinks you’re buying contain corn. Here are the many names for corn on food labels: 20
- Corn Syrup
- High Fructose Corn Syrup
- Maltodextrin, Dextrin
- Malt, Malt Syrup, Malt Extract
- Excipients – a binder in pills
- GDL – glucona delta lactone – often found in cured meats
- Mono-Glycerides, Di-Glycerides
- MSG – Mono-Sodium Glutamate is often derived from corn
- Sugar – if it doesn’t say beet (which is mainly gmo now), or cane
- Corn Starch, Starch, Modified Food Starch
- Sucrose – though this used to be from cane sugar, some labels have been found to read “from corn”
- Carmel Flavoring or coloring – though it can be made from cane or GMO beet sugar, it is often made from corn syrup
- Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Broth, Vegetable Protein, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, Vegetable Mono or Di-Glycerides.
- Xanthan Gum – a thickener often grown in corn media
- Zein – a fiber made from corn
3. Determine Your Current Corn Consumption
Third, analyze your dietary choices if you find that you eat too much corn products. They are mostly found in sweets and sodas, and you know that that will not be good for you at any time. To avoid diabetes, obesity and liver disease, stick to water and ditch the sugar!
4. Lobby Local and Federal Officials
Finally, don’t let your representatives off the hook! Email, call and write to your local officials to tell them that you are not OK with the current situation. Encourage them to promote independent studies of the effects of corn and make laws that protect Americans!
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Citations and Sources
- 1. How corn made its way into just about everything we eat. was. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/
just-about-everything-we-eat/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.a35aad8004f4. Published July 14, 2015. Accessed May 7, 2019.
- 2.Overabundance of corn and its effect on the economy. michaelpollan.com. https://michaelpollan.com/interviews/overabundance-of-corn-and-its-effect-on-the-economy/. Accessed May 7, 2019.
- 3.Please settle a dispute. Is sweet corn a vegetable or a grain? What is the difference? How about field corn? – eXtension. articles.extension.org. https://articles.extension.org/pages/36971/please-settle-a-dispute-is-sweet-corn-a-vegetable-or-a-grain-what-is-the-difference-how-about-field-. Accessed May 7, 2019.
- 4.How Christopher Columbus Changed Modern Farming. HGTV. https://www.hgtv.com/outdoors/gardens/planting-and-maintenance/how-christopher-columbus-changed-modern-farming. Accessed May 7, 2019.
- 5.The End of Food: Paul Roberts: 9780547085975: Amazon.com: Books. amazon. https://www.amazon.com/The-End-Food-Paul-Roberts/dp/0547085974. Accessed May 7, 2019.
- 6.How corn made its way into just about everything we eat. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/
Published July 14, 2019. Accessed May 7, 2019.
- 7.Harmon K. Global High Fructose Corn Syrup Use May Be Fueling Diabetes Increase. Scientific American Blog Network. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/global-high-fructose-corn-syrup-use-may-be-fueling-diabetes-increase/. Published November 27, 2012. Accessed May 9, 2019.
- 8.A Not-So-Sweet Story – High Fructose Corn Syrup – Obesity Action Coalition. Obesity Action Coalition. https://www.obesityaction.org/community/article-library/a-not-so-sweet-story-high-fructose-corn-syrup/. Accessed May 9, 2019.
- 9.Sevastianova K, Santos A, Kotronen A, et al. Effect of short-term carbohydrate overfeeding and long-term weight loss on liver fat in overweight humans. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012;96(4):727-734. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22952180.
- 10.Monde with AFP L, Monde with AFP, L, Monde with AFP More by this author… L. Study Proves Three Monsanto Corn Varieties’ Noxiousness to the Organism. Truthout. https://truthout.org/articles/study-proves-three-monsanto-corn-varieties-noxiousness-to-the-organism/. Accessed May 9, 2019.
- 12.de V, Roullier F, Cellier D, Séralini G. A Comparison of the Effects of Three GM Corn Varieties on Mammalian Health. Int J Biol Sci. 2009;5(7):706-726. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2793308.
- 13.Barrionuevo A. Mountains of Corn and a Sea of Farm Subsidies. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2005/11
/09/business/mountains-of-corn-and-a-sea-of-farm-subsidies.html. Published November 9, 2005. Accessed May 9, 2019.
- 14.We’re Living on Corn! michaelpollan.com. https://michaelpollan.com/reviews/were-living-on-corn/. Accessed May 7, 2019.
- 15.Genetically Modified Corn Study Reveals Health Damage and Cover-up – Institute for Responsible Technology. Institute for Responsible Technology. https://responsibletechnology.org/genetically-modified-corn-study-reveals-health-damage-and-cover-up/. Published July 11, 2005. Accessed May 9, 2019.
- 16.The Great GMO Cover-up, Part 2 – Institute for Responsible Technology. Institute for Responsible Technology. https://dickatlee.com/issues/gmo/pdf/irt_gmo_coverup_ad_2_refs.pdf. Accessed May 9, 2019.
- 17.Corn on Food Labels – Simple Life Mom. simplelifemom.com. https://simplelifemom.com/2014/03/28/corn-on-food-labels-2/. Accessed May 9, 2019.