By Jodi Friedlander, M.S. and Edward Bauman, M.Ed, Ph.D.
Theories and hypotheses abound as to why the United States is experiencing what many regard as its most serious public health threat, an epidemic of overweight and obesity.
Two-thirds of America’s adults are overweight or obese and as many as 30 percent of U.S. children are overweight, with childhood obesity more than doubling in the past 25 years. Corresponding with this trend, childhood diabetes has increased ten-fold within the past 20 years (Olshansky et al., 2005). Pollution in our environment, the toxicity of our food supply, our propensity for a couch-potato lifestyle, and super-sized food portions certainly all play a part in the super-sizing of our population. Take a closer look at the contributing causes, though, and one discovers a common denominator underlying all of this: lots of cheap food.
Michael Pollan, food journalist and author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, points out that when populations are faced with plentiful and cheap food, they will eat it, and that the average American’s daily intake of calories has jumped by more than 10 percent since 1977 (p. 102). Of all the cheap foods available, Pollan tells us, none is more widespread than corn. He is not referring to sweet summer corn on the cob, nor to corn tortillas or most other foods that are recognizable as corn, but to all of the industrial permutations of corn, such as sweeteners, corn-fed livestock, and an array of processed foods. It is so pervasive in our food supply that if you eat fast foods or packaged foods at all, it is likely that you are eating corn.
Binge Eating of Refined Carbohydrates:
Alcohol and Corn
According to Pollan’s research (2002), there have been two periods of epidemic binging in America’s history. The first occurred at the turn of the nineteenth century, as a wave of cheap liquor washed over the country and alcohol abuse proliferated, along with its attendant social and health problems. The second era of binging, one that is far more serious, is now upon us, as we eat ourselves literally sick unto death on energy-dense foods lacking in the vital nutrients necessary for health.
What these two eras have in common is an overabundance of corn. Currently comprising about a quarter of our farmland and producing nine billion bushels a year, corn is our single largest crop (Wilson, 2005). This overabundance brings down prices, creating plentiful food at dirt cheap prices. In the early 1800s there were two things you could do with too much corn: feed it to the hogs or distill it into hard liquor (Pollan, 2003). Today we rely on the genius of food technologists to devise “a-maize-ing” ways to fashion our current surplus into various kinds of profitable foodstuffs in ever-larger serving sizes, on which we consumers grow fat.
Political Economy of Corn
Commodity surpluses are common and result from a complex mix of political forces, which in this country include huge subsidy payments to farmers that ultimately encourage overproduction. Corn is our most heavily subsidized crop, to the tune of $10 billion a year (Wilson, 2005). There is a unique component to the corn subsidy story. The European Union and a growing number of other countries have refused to purchase genetically modified (GMO) foods. It is estimated that between 3% and 5% of our sweet corn crop is GMO, and since it goes into the mix with non-GMO corn, these countries steadfastly refuse to purchase our corn.
Jeffrey Smith, in his best-selling book Seeds of Deception, reported that by 2003 U.S. corn exports (including feed corn) to the European Union were down 99.4% (p. 153). This means we’ve got a lot of extra corn on our hands and our huge industrial-farming corporations are desperately trying to get it sold and into the food supply. The big profits, though, are made not by selling the corn but by creating value-added processed foods.
High Fructose Corn Sweetener and Obesity:
Enter modern science. It is well-known that high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), an inexpensive, highly concentrated product synthesized from cornstarch, is widely used in the food industry, most notably as the primary sweetener in soft drinks and baked goods. What is less well known is that its usage increased 1000% between 1970, when it entered our food supply, and 1990 (Bray et al., 2004). This vast increase in usage far surpasses that of any other food or food group and is largely due to its incredibly low price. In their insatiable hunger for higher profits, food manufacturers add increasing amounts of it to their products in ever-increasing portion sizes. Instead of the once common eight-ounce soft drink, we are now more likely to find a 20-ounce (or bigger) size.
HFCS currently represents 40% of sweeteners added to foods and beverages, and it is conservatively estimated that the average rate of consumption is 132 daily calories for everyone over the age of two (Bray et al., 2004). For heavy consumers, this figure increases to more than 300 calories per day. This works out to an average range of about 10-20% of daily calories from HFCS.
The skyrocketing of HFCS in the food supply has paralleled our nation’s rapid increase in obesity. Here’s why. Bray et al.’s 2004 study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, reported that HFCS, and fructose in general, metabolizes differently than glucose and sucrose. This study revealed that fructose does not elicit a response from insulin, does not increase leptin production, and does not suppress ghrelin production. In short, it short-circuits the hormonal process that signals satiation and helps regulate food intake and body weight. Instead, fructose is sent directly to the liver, bypassing the intermediary breakdown steps that occur with sucrose. The liver’s response to the fructose is to generate new fat cells, which it then dumps into the bloodstream as triglycerides.
Another study, coming to the same conclusion, found that a diet high in fructose elevates triglyceride levels shortly after eating far more significantly than a diet high in sucrose, particularly in men (Critser, 2004, p. 137). Muscles, bombarded by triglycerides, will develop insulin resistance rather quickly. A study done on golden hamsters, which metabolize fats very much like humans do, found that insulin resistance developed just a few weeks after starting a high-fructose diet (Critser, 2004, p. 137). Overall, such studies have found that high fructose intake changes the way we metabolize fats, causing us to store fat and burn sugar.
Glut on the Market of Calorie-Rich/Nutrient-Poor Processed Foods
Adding to the obesity problem, people who drink HFCS-sweetened drinks tend to take in too many calories overall (evidently believing that calories don’t count when you’re not chewing). Fructose is also the main sugar found in fruit juices, which, while naturally occurring, does not have the accompanying fruit fiber to slow its uptake. Add this to our off-the-charts HFCS consumption and the primary role of fructose in the obesity epidemic becomes obvious.
Where does the rest of the corn go? By visiting the Corn Refiners Association website—www.corn.org—one learns that there are many other sweeteners made from corn, including maltose, maltodextrin, dextrose, glucose, and crystalline fructose. Who could fault even the most intrepid label-reading consumer for not knowing this? The list of corn-derived products also includes amino acids, vitamins, monosodium glutamate, mono- and di-glycerides, citric and lactic acids, cornstarch and other starches, as well as vegetable oils, margarines, and shortenings. Thousands of supermarket staples contain products made from corn, mostly in the form of starches.
Corn, along with soy, is ubiquitous in the marketplace. Though our processed foods have the semblance of diversity, corn and soy permeate them all. When not organically produced, both crops require large quantities of pesticides and herbicides to thrive. If toxins in the food supply also contribute to weight gain, as many scientists believe, then these two dominant crops are certainly suspect.
Undiagnosed Corn Allergies
Corn may cause allergic symptoms as a contactant (talcs, bath oils and powders, starched clothing, and corn adhesives); as an inhalant (fumes from vegetable forms of corn as they cook); and as an ingestant (corn and corn products that are eaten). Corn-sensitive people are advised to avoid all forms of corn for a minimum of 30 days, and then to reintroduce whole corn products (corn on the cob, then organic tortillas) and watch for reactions, such as fatigue, irritability, inflammation, etc. (Krohn, 2000; pp. 108-112).
Always read labels! When inquiring about whether a product contains corn, ask about corn flour, oil, starch, and sugar (dextrose), as well as HFCS. Vegetable oils need not be identified on commercial labels, so sensitive people should assume that commercial products containing vegetable oil may contain processed corn oil. Likewise, sugars do not have to be labeled as derived from corn, cane, or beet. To be safe, then, it is wise to avoid all commercially sweetened products.
GMO Corn-Fed Animals and Fatty Acids
But there’s more. We feed a lot of corn (and soy)—much of both genetically modified—to cattle, including those we eat and those whose milk we consume. While little is known about how this affects dairy products, studies have shown that the fat content of our meat differs radically from that of cattle fed entirely on pasturage. Grass-fed beef is significantly lower in overall fat content, lower in saturated fat content, and higher in polyunsaturated fat content (Daley et al., 2006a). A joint study by California State University, Chico and the University of California Cooperative Extension Service found that beef from cattle fed solely on grass provided a healthier ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fats—3:1 versus about 20:1 in grain-fed beef.
Professor Tony Hulbert, Ph.D., a professor of biology at the University of Wollongong in Australia, has been performing experiments with fatty acids on cell membranes. He has found that the Omega-3 fats, because they make cell membranes runnier, allow molecules to pass in and out more quickly (Blanch, 2005). This finding strongly suggests that the sped up transit time translates to an increased metabolic rate. He has, in fact, found that wild animals that eat Omega-3 rich diets have very high metabolisms. Since our hunter-gatherer days, when it is estimated that our Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio was 1:1, the human diet has moved away from Omega-3 fatty acids and now favors Omega-6 fats, as well as damaged fats that our bodies were never designed to ingest.
The Chico/UC study’s grass-fed cattle also contained up to 50% more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than the grain-fed cattle (Daley et al., 2006b). Another study has shown that CLA, in amounts above 3.4 grams per day, reduces adipose tissue stores and reduces Body Fat Mass in human study subjects (Blankson et al., 2000). This combination of lowered metabolic rate and lowered intake of CLA when consuming grain-fed beef may be a big piece of the weight gain puzzle. And remember, these cattle are not fed grain because it’s a healthful part of their diets (grain is actually too high in protein for ruminants and makes them ill [Pearce, J., ruminant specialist; private communication, August 26, 2006]) but because it makes them gain weight, and quickly. For us humans, this form of corn has been refined and processed inside a cow rather than in a manufacturing plant, but once again we’re consuming a highly refined corn product.
The same holds true for commercial chickens, even those produced organically, except that chickens don’t become sick from this diet. Corn and soy are now also being fed to our farm-raised fish and for the very same reason: it makes them grow big and fat very quickly on cheap feed. It also skews their fat ratios, completely negating the reason we’ve all started eating cold-water fish in the first place—for their Omega-3 fatty acids. Buyer beware.
Corny is no Longer Funny
Overall, it’s a corny country we inhabit. Our “amber waves of grain,” once known as the fat of the land, now contribute greatly to the land of the fat. Our large food manufacturers and meat producers, under the guise of producing appealing and diverse foods, are in reality merely processing and refining products made from corn and other energy-dense commodity foods.
To change this situation would mean the undoing of governmental laws regulating food subsidies and the political favoring of large corporations. It is on an individual level that consumers exercise the most power. As nutrition professionals, it is incumbent upon us to teach our clients to be more conscious of where our foods come from so that they, too, can consciously make wise choices for both physical and political reasons.
By adopting and promoting a whole-foods, predominantly organic diet, we never have to worry about overly refined commodity foods making us fat, or about the toxins so pervasive within them. We will be eating a far more diversified and healthful diet, and we will be making a powerful political statement with our food choices. According to Michael Pollan (Wagenvoord, 2004), there already has been some reform in the food supply due to consumer demand. He contends that the food industry is very sensitive to this demand, as demonstrated by how many of the large companies now have an organic division and by how much more capital than ever before is going into organic agriculture. He says, “If consumers make good choices, the industry will respond.”
Let’s hope he’s right.
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Anonymous (2002). “Products made from corn.” Corn Refiners Association. Retrieved September 17, 2006 from the World Wide Web: www.corn.org/web/products.htm
Blanch, D. (2005, March 28). “Eat fat to get thin.” ABC Radio Australia. Retrieved September 18, 2006 from the World Wide Web: www.abc.net.au/ra/innovations/stories/s1334086.htm
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Daley, C.A., A.Abbott, P. Doyle, G. Nader, and S. Larson. California State University, College of Agriculture, University of California Cooperative Extension Service. (2006, May). A literature review of the value-added nutrients found in grass-fed beef products. [Electronic version]. Retrieved September 16, 2006, from the World Wide Web: www.csuchico.edu/agr/grassfedbeef/health-benefits/index.html
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Wilson, K. (2005, July 20) “The tragic abuse of corn.” Organic Consumers Association. Retrieved September 18, 2006 from the World Wide Web: www.organicconsumers.org/Corn/abused072705.cfm
Jodi Frielander M.S., N.C. is a Bauman College faculty member. She has earned her Nutrition Consultant certification from Bauman College and her Master’s degree in Holistic Nutrition from Clayton College of Natural Health. She lives in Tehachapi, California with her husband, Scott, and their dog and three cats. She maintains a private nutrition consulting practice, specializing in issues of weight gain, hormone imbalance, and stress disorders. She also writes a monthly nutrition newspaper column, presents lectures and teaches private nutrition classes. She keeps her life in balance with gardening, hiking, biking, running, rock climbing and yoga. She is constantly asked, “Where in the heck is Tehachapi?” She can be contacted at email@example.com.
Edward Bauman, M.Ed., Ph.D. is the director of Bauman College: Holistic Nutrition and Culinary Arts, with three classroom campuses in Northern California and an innovative distance learning program. Ed is committed to bringing the message of Eating for Health to a wider audience to reverse the tendencies toward mindless over-consumption of sickening foods. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.