We’re Living on Corn!

Michael Pollan believes that America has a national eating disorder, and in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, he shows that it goes back a long way—at least to the early 1900s, when Dr. John Harvey Kellogg attracted crowds to his sanitarium at Battle Creek, Michigan. There the inmates endured all-grape diets and almost hourly enemas, yet despite the discomfort (or perhaps because of it) his quackery flourished and Kellogg soon found himself with competitors. Among them was Horace Fletcher, otherwise known as “the Great Masticator.” Fletcher recommended chewing each mouthful of food one hundred times. I still remember my mother instructing me in 1950s Australia to chew my food one hundred times on each side. Just how this doubling of the great masticator’s dictum occurred is unclear to me, but I can tell you that after the twentieth chew or thereabouts, most kinds of food were reduced to a bilious sludge.

Down the decades the food faddists have just kept coming, and today we seem to have more of them (even if they are less flamboyant) than ever before. Among the better known are the late Dr. Atkins with his low-carbohydrate diet and Dr. Sears with his Zone plan. Then there are the more obscure Dr. Brownell with the LEARN scheme and Dr. Ornish with a regime named after himself. Pollan argues that Americans are more susceptible to such fads because they lack a food tradition that embodies the wisdom of earlier generations. Maybe so, but faddish diets seem to be prospering everywhere, and the public has never been more confused, or more misled, about the simple matter of eating. Many of us, it seems, have more or less given up. A recent study found that one out of every five Canadians eats by selecting from a group of ten or fewer food types.1

As intriguing as they are, Pollan does not overly concern himself with diet fads, for he has an altogether more weighty matter in his sights: the dysfunction of the entire American industrial food complex. The situation is a lot worse than most of us dare imagine, for Americans are some of the most specialized eaters on earth. 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.

In America, foods as diverse as Gatorade, Ring Dings, and hamburgers have their beginning with corn. Indeed, huge factories transform its kernels into an almost unimaginable array of compounds. To illustrate how pervasive corn’s influence is, Pollan gives us the example of the chicken nugget, which he says “piles corn upon corn: what chicken it contains consists of corn” (because the chickens are corn-fed), 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…

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