Corny Considerations

photo of a corn man sculpture in claySeems that corn, in one form or another, is a dominant subject in much of the news these days.   Between the very justified villainization of high-fructose corn syrup that’s infiltrating nearly every otherwise healthful food product to the demand for corn-based biofuel causing a rise in the cost of meats to stories about how corn crops are edging out other crops, corn is making headlines.

With that in mind, several themes that revolve around this common topic – corn – have been swirling around in my brain lately…

Are We Children of the Corn?

I’ve just begun reading Michael Pollan’s
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: a Natural History of Four Meals in which he traces, step by step, the journey our food takes from the soil to the plate.   I’m not far into the book and already it’s some very thought-provoking stuff.   Pollan contends that we are indeed what we eat — and what we eat remakes the world.   And what we eat, by and large, is corn:

Corn is what feeds the steer that becomes the steak.   Corn feeds the chicken and the pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the tilapia and, increasingly, even the salmon, a carnivore by nature that the fish farmers are reengineering to tolerate corn.   The eggs are made of corn.   The milk and cheese and yogurt, which once came from dairy cows that grazed on grass, now typically come from Holsteins that spend their working lives indoors tethered to machines, eating corn.

Pollan goes to to make the corn connection to a vast array of many of the other foods we purchase & consume – 1 in every 4 items for sale in the average American supermarket contains corn.   A staggering number of even the non-consumable items in your local stores are derivatives of Zea mays, the giant tropical grass we know as corn.   In fact, the Ontario Corn Producers Association insists that there are A Zillion Uses for Corn!   Given how most of the corn grown in this country is processed into unrecognizable bits & pieces, you may never look at a cornfield – or the food in your shopping cart – the same way again…

The Bitter Taste of Corn Sweeteners

In 2006 alone, more than 700 million bushels of corn were refined into corn sweeteners – primarily High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).   Read the labels on beverages & foods and you’ll find HFCS has insidiously wormed its way into all kinds of foods you might never suspect – lunch meats, whole-wheat breads, crackers, salad dressings, soups, cheese, milk, yogurt, vitamins, and even medicines.   Perhaps worse yet, many of the foods laced with this nasty stuff are promoted as being suitable for a healthy lifestyle or weight loss!

Despite the considerable processing required to create HFCS, it’s considerably cheaper, easier to transport, and much sweeter than sugar.   In part, this is because our government artificially fixes sugar prices while heavily subsidizing corn.   But the net result is that this translates into lower costs and higher profits for food producers, so there’ a tremendous economics incentive for them to use corn-based sweeteners.   Since HFCS comes from corn, products that feature it can be billed as "natural" foods but this couldn’t be further from the truth.   In fact, the process of breaking down cornstarch into syrup requires 3 different enzymes – the first of which, alpha-amylase, is industrially produced by a bacterium.

Studies have linked a number of health issues with the use of HFCS.   Some suggest that HFCS may alter intracellular metabolism, which in turn facilitates accelerated aging through oxidative damage.   There’s also connections with HFCS contributing to obesity & diabetes.   So why are these health risks tolerated and the use of HFCS continuing to escalate?   Consumer apathy.   There are simply too few people thinking about the ingredients or nutritional value of the foods they ingest.   We’ve got to let our dollars do the talking – if enough consumers stop buying foods made with corn sweeteners, the producers will have little choice but to abandon the use of HFCS.

Biofuel Causing Corn Shortages?

Not enough that we use innumerable amounts of corn to fuel our bodies, we’ve now been snookered into using it to fuel our cars too.   But the use of corn-based biofuel seems to be coming at the expense of corn as a food crop.

I recently read about a surprising situation in David Bollier’s article on the Mexican corn crisis and although it isn’t quite the same, I couldn’t help but draw a comparison to the Irish Potato Famine of 1845.

Like Ireland’s potato, corn is a food that defines Mexico.   There’s evidence that corn was domesticated in central Mexico more than 7000 years ago and as early as 1500 BC, corn was a primary staple food for most South American and much of the North American cultures.   Corn, in the form of tortillas, is a critical mainstay of their diet & culture but tortilla prices have tripled or quadrupled in some parts of Mexico since last summer.   Why?   Biofuel.

Now it’s true that yellow corn earmarked (rimshot!) for fuel production is not the same variety used for food, but with the increased demand for biofuels, the corn destined for ethanol is fetching a significantly higher price.   So farmers in Mexico are enticed to grow that crop instead of corn for human and/or livestock consumption and instead import cheaper, food-grade white corn from us to offset.   Farmers here in the U.S. are failling prey to similar economic pressures.   Sounds simple, no?   It gets worse…

Not much more than a year ago, Mexico was exporting more than 137,000 tons of its annual corn crop.   Yet at the same time, Mexico is facing a corn shortage and is set to import more than 800,000 tons of corn for its people from the U.S. & other countries.   The price of tortillas has risen so dramatically that Mexicans have taken to mass protests in the streets.

Now it gets really interesting — statistically, the U.S. grew 42% of the world’s total corn crop last year but ethanol production is projected to consume half of our annual corn harvest by 2008.   So, the demand for biofuels is about to chew up 20% of the world’s corn harvest.

Despite the fact that there are other, potentially far more efficient non-food crop sources that can produce ethanol, the push for corn-based biofuel continues.   And this is accompanied by a score of problems:   it requires vast amounts of energy (including fossil fuel) & water to produce, it does nothing to encourage us to reduce our use of fossil fuel, it burns less efficiently than straight gasoline, & overall doesn’t have a net effect of reducing global-warming-causing pollution.   And since corn is heavily subsidized by the government, as the demand for corn-based ethanol to run our cars increases, so too do our taxes — those government subsidies have to come from somewhere, right?

Although I haven’t seen anything documenting this, it’s a safe bet that corn-based biofuel benefits "Big Oil" significantly.   It’s probably also a safe bet that those companies are already snapping up the farms that grow corn.   Once again, seems like a win-win scenario for "Big Oil."

Anybody else find this whole thing frustrating and/or "cornfusing?"

A Starfish That Makes a Difference

Peppridge Farm Goldfish Starfish CrackersPepperidge Farm Goldfish-brand crackers, a National Leadership Sponsor of City Year, has announced a new "starfish" design Goldfish cracker, as part of the "Making a Difference for Kids" campaign.

The starfish is a symbol of hope in City Year’s effort to make the world a better place by reminding us that each of us has the power to make a difference:

The Starfish Story

A young girl was walking along a beach that was covered with thousands of starfish left dying in the sun by the receding tide.   Seeking to help, she picked up a starfish and tossed it back into the ocean.

A man, amused by her action, said to her, “Little girl, there are too many starfish.   You will never make a difference.”   Discouraged, she began to walk away.   Suddenly, she turned around, picked up another starfish, and tossed it as far as she could back into the sea.   Turning to the man, she smiled and said, “I made a difference to that one!”

The man looked at the girl inquisitively and thought about what she had said and done.   Inspired, he joined the little girl in throwing the starfish back into the sea.   Soon others joined, and all the starfish were saved.

— Inspired by an adaptation of Loren Eisley’s "The Star Thrower."

Subway Wrap Rap

How disappointing — just when Dede & I got thoroughly hooked on Subway tuna wraps, the powers that be foolishly opted to get rid of their chewy, whole-grain, low-carb wraps!   Yup, according to Jimmy Moore over at The Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb Blog, a Subway representative has confirmed that the "Carb Conscious Wraps" have been discontinued earlier this month and replaced with a white flour tortilla wrap at all North American Subway franchises.

What a travesty!   The "Carb Conscious Wraps" had only 5 net carbs yet featured 8 grams of fiber & a whopping 14 grams of protein!   The crummy replacement wraps have over 20 net carbs but less than 1 gram of fiber — and no flavor!   Ack!

What will we do now?   Are we without recourse?   Well, maybe not.   For starters, when visiting your local Subway franchise restaurant, tell the owner you want the old-style Atkins-friendly, low-carb, goodness back!   You can also fill in the Subway Customer Service Form to send a signal, loud & clear, that we all want the "Carb Conscious Wraps" back!   So get with it, people!   Let’s make this happen!

Update:  David Turner, owner of the MCH Subway franchise we frequent, added that Subway made this change without franchisee input.   He recommends calling Subway at (800) 888-4848 and telling them that you prefer the original "Carb Conscious Wraps."

Update #2:  Subway must be listening.   Only days after Dede & I sent website feedback and emails, the MCH franchise brought back the chewy, whole-grain, low-carb wraps that we love!   Power to the people!

Get Nutty in March

Despite a recent setback, it’s worth mentioning (again) that March is National Peanut Month.

While peanuts are very common today, ancient Peruvians held them in such high esteem that they buried pots of peanuts with their mummified dead to nourish them during their long journey to the hereafter.

Although a nut in the culinary sense, in the botanical sense the fruit of the peanut is a woody, indehiscent legume. However you categorize them, peanuts are a nutritional knockout, having pound for pound more protein, minerals, & vitamins than some cuts of beef. They provide protection against cardiovascular disease due to high levels of monounsaturated fats and powerful antioxidants Resveratrol & p-Coumaric acid.

Peanut butter is the leading use of peanuts in the U.S. but the incredibly versatile peanut also has a wide variety of non-food uses too. Peanut oil and its derivatives are used in paint, varnish, lubricating oil, leather dressing, furniture polish, insecticide, nitroglycerin, soap, & cosmetics. Peanut shells and other parts of the plant are often used in the manufacture of plastic, wallboard, abrasives, adhesives, textiles, paper, soil fertilizer, & animal feed.

So grab up a fistfull of peanuts and enjoy!

Product Code 2111 = Bad Peanut Butter

Thanks to one of the blogs we read, we’ve just discovered that we own 3 jars of recalled Peter Pan peanut butter. It seems that they may be contaminated with salmonella. Peter Pan & Great Value are the only brands being recalled and the affected jars begin with the product code “2111” stamped on top of the lid.

With all the other junk that hits my email box, I’m not sure why this kind of news never gets to me! You can read more about the recall at the FDA website.

Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

And now a nugget of nutrition news from Mom: Besides being wasteful, there’s another really good reason to not trim the crusts off of your kids’ bread—according to a news item over on Ben Sullivan’s Science Blog, German researchers have discovered that the crust is a rich source of antioxidants and may provide a much stronger health benefit than the rest of the bread.

A recent study has identified an antioxidant called pronyl-lysine that’s 8 times more abundant in the bread’s crust. Interestingly, this compound is not present in the original flour. It is created during the complex chemical reaction of the protein-bound amino acid L-lysine and starch as well as reducing sugars in the presence of heat—a little something we amateurs call “baking.” What’s more, darker breads not only tend to have more dietary fiber but also higher amounts of this cancer-fighting antioxidant goodness too!

Shopping the Perimeter

We caught an episode of Queer Eye a couple of weeks ago where a nutritionist met the “straight guy” & Ted at a grocery store to help them learn how to shop for more healthful food. Nothing particularly new about that. And they started shopping in the produce section. Nothing new about that either. But then she dropped a line that was simplicity at it finest…

Always shop the perimeter of the grocery store first.

Nothing earthshattering there, but still, as I was doing some shopping this morning, I was recalled and was impressed with that simple notion. The perimeter of the grocery store is where you find fresh veggies & fruit, bins of raw nuts, the bakery, seafood counter, meat market, dairy cabinets, etc. In other words, it’s where you find the freshest, least-processed, healthiest foods. Genius!

An added bonus: along the perimeter of the market is also where you usually will find an inexpensive, freshly-cut bundle of flowers to take home to your sweetie…

Roses for my sweetie!

Feasting on Asphalt

Alton Brown sinks his teeth into road food!
Did you catch the funky new “Feasting on Asphalt” mini-series on the Food Network recently? If not, you’re in luck — all 4 episodes are being re-aired back-to-back this Saturday, August 19th.

Foodie Alton Brown and a camera crew hop on motorcycles and set out across the country to discover how and where we eat when we’re on the road. Highlighted by archival photos & film, the series also serves as a history lesson as Alton journies down back roads exploring every aspect of eating on the go, from foraging for grub, to camp cooking, to the evolution of “road food” icons — the diners, cafes, and truck stops that once flourished beside America’s highways. And along the way, he often reflects on how changes in eating on the road have influenced today’s culture.

Click here to see Wikipedia’s page on the show and for a link of a cool pushpin map of the series’ route.

Steve, Don’t Eat It!

Sometimes you stumble innocently across something that strikes a chord with you so deeply that you’e just gotta share it. I geuss that’s what this whole “blogging” thing is about, huh? Well, this morning, I staggered, bleary-eyed and not yet fully awake, across The Sneeze, a website that bills itself as “Half zine, Half blog. Half not good with fractions.” Well, I’m about 127.5% sure that this site is hilarious.

(Supreme bonus points for anyone who caught that obscure reference to Ted, the software developer who had no concept of mathematics from Survivor: Thailand.)

Do ya remember how when you were a kid you’d sometimes laugh so hard that milk would come out your nose? If you’ve been aching to relive that childhood memory, you have only but to peruse the insanely funny rantings (and occasional ravings) in the Steve, Don’t Eat It section where a fellow (presumably named “Steve”) reviews funky and disgusting food products that no rational person would consider eating. For example:

“First off, I would like to say to Dolores, I am sorry. I don’t know what it is I did to you, but you have gotten me back and we’re even.”

How do I find these things? Don’t ask. Just enjoy!