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Thursday, March 13, 2014


When was the last time you ate at a fast food restaurant?  In the past week?  Month?  Amazingly, one in three American kids eats fast food every single day.  That astounds me.  And probably, that fast food meal is eaten in the car--as 19% of American meals are.

In his The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan continues following the trail of corn to a fast food meal at McDonald's with his son and wife.  He tells how his son ordered McNuggets.  The McDonald's he went to had a flyer that listed ingredients, nutrition info, etc about the menu items.  Guess how many ingredients there are in a McNugget.  Go ahead, guess....

Did you guess thirty-eight?  I didn't think so.  Of those, Pollan counted 13 that can be derived from corn.

Then there's the chemicals that are included--even one that is derived from petroleum and is sprayed onto the nugget or the box to "help preserve freshness."  This is OK with the FDA even though the stuff is flammable.  Yum.

So anyway, what he ended up doing was testing the food that they ordered:  soda, milk shake, salad and dressing, chicken nugget, cheeseburger and French fries for the amount of corn in each.  It can be done by testing the carbon from the corn, which stays intact no matter how processed the corn gets.
The sodas came out at the top, not surprising since they consist of little else than corn sweetener, but virtually everything else we ate revealed a high proportion of corn, too.  In order of diminishing corniness, this is how the laboratory measured our meal: soda (100% corn), milk shake (78%), salad dressing (65%), chicken nuggets (56%), cheeseburger (52%), and French fries (23%).  What in the eyes of the omnivore looks like a meal of impressive variety turns out, when viewed through the eyes of the mass spectrometer, to be the meal of a far more specialized kind of eater.  But then, this is what the industrial eater has become: corn's koala.
To add insult to injury, Pollan figured that they ate a total of 4510 calories--"more than half as many as we each should probably consume in a day."  Plus they "had consumed a lot of petroleum, and not just because we were in a car.  To grow and process those 4510 food calories took at least ten times as many calories of fossil energy, the equivalent of 1.3 gallons of oil."

Something to think about next time you have a hankerin' for a McSomethingorother.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Trying to Process it All

Some of the more interesting info that Michael Pollan writes in his The Omnivore's Dilemma (to me, at least) is the advent of processed foods--and its effects on our health, environment and the whole food culture in this country.

Processing food is not a recent phenomenon--just how it's done is.  Pollan writes of the 3 "ages" of food processing.  The first was centuries ago when we learned how to preserve food through the use of salt and cures and pickling.  Then, as technology advanced a bit, we started to can and freeze our foods to make them last.  But then, in the words of Pollan:
In the third age of food processing, which begins with the end of World War II, merely preserving the fruits of nature was deemed too modest:  The goal now was to improve on nature.  The twentieth-century prestige of technology and convenience combined with advances in marketing to push aside butter to make shelf space for margarine, replace fruit juice with juice drinks and then entirely juice-free drinks like Tang, cheese with Cheez Whiz, and whipped cream with Cool Whip.
As you may guess, corn is involved greatly in these technological "advances".  Maybe the best example how technology and marketing make a boatload of money for big businesses is breakfast cereals.  It takes a cheap commodity like corn and turns it into a box of cereal that's sold for $4 or more.  And this "improvement" on nature's food can be found in many places.

Pollan writes of a company called TreeTop that "has developed a 'low-moisture, naturally sweetened apple piece infused with a red-wine extract.'  Just eighteen grams of these apple pieces have the same amount of cancer-fighting 'flavonoid phenols as five glasses of wine and the dietary fibber equivalent of one whole apple.'"  Is is me or is this just weird?  The article where he read about this company was in Food Technology and was entitled "Getting More Fruits and Vegetables into Food."  That pretty much tells you what you need to know.

Where does this leave us?  In a nation full of healthcare problems, Type II diabetes (which originally was called "adult-onset diabetes" until so many kids started to be diagnosed with it) and turning corn into high fructose corn syrup to sweeten our foods.  These processed foods are cheap calories and so people eat more of it.  That's why  poverty and obesity go hand-in-hand.  According to Pollan, since 1977, American's average daily intake of calories has gone up more than 10%.  

Ahh, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).  We've all heard how it isn't good for us (except for those TV commercials from the corn processors that were running the last couple of years telling us differently).  Problem is that even though we eat more HFCS, we're still eating just as much refined sugar.  The average American consumes about 66 pounds of HFCS a year, but our refined sugar intake is going up.  Yuck.

In 1984, Coke and Pepsi decided to change from sugar to corn syrup--it's much cheaper--but because of the lower cost in producing their products, they sold them in larger bottles.  Lower cost per ounce, but we drink more ounces.  Bigger is better--just ask fast food restaurants who want you to Super Size for just a few cents more.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Beefy Corn

Time for another recap of some of the fascinating (and disturbing) information passed on by author Michael Pollan in his book, The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Last time, I told you of the incredible role that corn plays in our American lives--in our food, our health, etc. Pollan goes on to describe how most of the commodity corn grown in the US is used.

60% of the corn grown in the US goes to feeding livestock--most of it going to feed the 100 million beef cattle raised in this country.  Unfortunately, these animals aren't built for eating corn.  They're grass eaters, but corn is cheaper and allows the animals to fatten up in a fraction of the time that grass does it.

These corn-fed cattle live (and I use that word very loosely) on what are called CAFOs--Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.  (Appetizing, huh?)  It used to be that cattle were raised on a farm that was growing all sorts of crops and the animals were fed the waste from the crops.  And the crops benefited from the waste from the animals.  It was a logical and natural circle.  With these feeding "cities," however, all sorts of problems arise--the fertility of the land is ruined (because growing one crop over and over will kill the nutritional content of the soil), terrible pollution problems occur at the feedlot (which usually go without a remedy) among many others.

What Pollan does is actually buys a calf (named Steer 534) that is on a ranch in South Dakota and follows it to a CAFO in Kansas.  These newly born calves start on grass because, biologically, they have to.  But soon they are weaned from the grass and their mother's milk to ready them for the feedlot.  In days past, it took a steer maybe 4-5 years to be ready for slaughter.  Today, thanks to corn and protein and fat supplements and drugs, a steer grows from 80 to 1100 pounds in about fourteen months.  Just not natural.

While the natural circle that I talked about above in the farms of the not-so-distant past is a good thing, the CAFOs present a vicious circle.  Pollan likens these feedlots to medieval cities--where overcrowding and lack of sanitation is a recipe for disease.  The reason the residents of these modern cities don't succumb to disease is the antibiotic.  Another tasty ingredient so often mass-produced beef.

Pollan describes how the feed is mixed together at the CAFO where 534 lives.
Every hour of every day a tractor trailer pulls up to the loading dock to deliver another fifty tons of corn....tanker trucks back up to silo-shaped tanks into which they pump thousands of gallons of liquefied fat and protein supplements.  In a shed attached to the mill sit vats of liquid vitamins and synthetic estrogen beside pallets stacked with fifty-pound sacks of antibiotics....Along with alfalfa hay and silage (for roughage), all these ingredients will be automatically blended and then piped into the parade of dump trucks that three times a day fan out from here to keep (their) eight and a half miles of troughs filled.

This just isn't good.  The animals are almost all sick to some degree.  So they have to be given the anitbiotics.  (Most of the antibiotics sold in the US today end up in feed for these animals.)  Then there's the huge pools of manure that just sit on the outskirts of the pens.  The runoff from these waste pools can't be used for crops--they'd kill them because of what's in them.  They end up poisoning waterways and water life.

There's a lot of other problems that I could write about:

  • The danger of strains of microbes (E. coli, for example) that can thrive in the meat and pose a threat to the eater. 
  • How to make that less of a problem, they use radiation to sterilize the meat and the manure that inevitably gets into the meat--along with all the nasty stuff that it contains.  
  • How 1/5 of "America's petroleum consumption goes to producing and transporting our food." 
Bottom line is that how most beef is raised in this country just doesn't make sense.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Corn Nation

I just started reading Michael Pollan's 2006 book, The Omnivore's Dilemma.  I was fascinated by his later book, In Defense of Food, which I read a while ago and hungered (pun intended) for more.  (You can read my blogs about that book starting here.  It goes on for a number of entries.)

I'm not going to do a "book report" like I did with that book, but I thought I'd share some interesting items as I proceed through this book.

Most of what I've read so far has to do with corn and corn's immense effect on this country's food culture--economically, industrially, nutritionally.

Corn originally became popular in this country with the Native Americans (and eventually, early settlers), who used corn in every way possible--fresh, dried for cornmeal, fermented.  Husks were woven or used as food for livestock.  Cobs were burned for heat.

But as time passed, corn began to take over our farmland.  After World War II, there was an excess of ammonium nitrate, which was used to make explosives for the war.  It was discovered that it could be used as a great fertilizer and it was spread throughout the corn fields of the Midwest.  This, along with the development of hybrid varieties, allowed more corn to be planted per acre.  Soon, most other crops were pushed out--not to mention animals and eventually, people, whose residential land was being turned into farmland.

It used to be that Mexicans ate the most corn per person on earth.  It is a staple of their diet and has been for centuries.  But today, it's the people of the US who are the biggest corn consumers.  In the approximately 45,000 items in a supermarket, about 1/4 of them are some derivative of corn--everything from beef that's fed on corn to the many forms of corn syrup (in everything from bread to soda to cereals) to the packaging of processed foods to toothpaste and diapers and trash bags and batteries and....you get the idea.

When many of us think of Iowa, we think of corn.  But Iowa farms in the past grew much more than corn.  They raised a huge variety of fruits and vegetables and animals.  A farm family could be self-sufficient--eating their crops, raising their animals on those crops, etc.--and could sell the excess.  Today, 80% of Iowa's food is imported to the state.  Why?  Because these farms have become solely corn farms.  Many of them beholden to the huge food companies that control them and the government subsidies that help the farmers survive.

It's this "industrial food" that Pollan sees as the downfall of the American food culture.  We don't know what we're eating much of the time or where it comes from.  Big Food works constantly to convince us to eat their products using labels meant to deceive.  This has changed our food culture so much that it's hard to imagine it ever changing back.
So violent a change in a culture's eating habits is surely the sign of a national eating disorder.  Certainly it would never have happened in a culture in possession of deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and eating.  But then, such a culture would not feel the need for its most august legislative body to ever deliberate the nation's "dietary goals"--or, for that matter, to wage political battle every few years over the precise design of an official government graphic called the "food pyramid."  A country with a stable culture of food would not shell out millions for the quackery (or common sense) of a new diet book every January.  It would not be susceptible to the pendulum swings of food scares or fads, to the apotheosis every few years of one newly discovered nutrient and the demonization of another.  It would not be apt to confuse protein bars and food supplements with meals or breakfast cereals with medicines.  It probably would not eat a fifth of its meals in cars of feed fully a third of its children at a fast-food outlet every day.  And it surely would not be nearly as fat.  

That is the crazy thing about the American food culture.  People are obsessed with eating "healthy" and diets  and fads, but are still some of the most unhealthy people on earth.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Family Dinner = Weight Loss?

I've written in the past about the importance of having dinner as a family--even if it's 4-5 times a week.  It's well documented that kids who eat the majority of their meals as a family do better in school  They also have a lower chance of having trouble with drugs, smoking and run-ins with the law.

In addition, it's been found that kids who enjoy dinners with their families tend to have better relationships with their parents and parents know more about what goes on in their kids' lives--simply from the dinner table conversation.

You can read an old post of mine with some interesting info regarding these statistics here.

I just read an article about a study that gives yet another reason to have family dinners.  According to the study, kids who sit at the dinner table for 20 minutes or more were more likely to have a healthy weight than those who didn't.  A difference of only a couple minutes per meal could make a difference.  While the article doesn't go into great detail as to why this is the case, it shows that the simple communication between family members makes a difference as well as having a scheduled meal time.

Personally, it seems to me that eating like this helps the child to eat slower (as opposed to shoving fast food down their throats in the car), which helps maintain a healthy weight.  And I would think that if a family takes the time to sit down for a dinner together, the meal will tend to be balanced and somewhat nutritional.

I don't know.  But what I do know is that there are loads of great reasons to take the time and eat dinners as a family.  It's something, sadly, that seems to be less and less prevalent in our society, but is such a simple way to make a difference in the life of our kids.