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Would you believe me if I told you that you are 80 to 90 percent corn? Probably not, right? While this statement is not entirely true, it is worth clarifying that corn is a component of 80 to 90 percent of the foods we eat—whether it is labelled on the ingredients list or not. This was the main premise of King Corn, a 2007 indie documentary in which two Bostonian college grads learn this astonishing fact and set out for Iowa with the goal of growing their very own acre of corn. Their corn-planting experiment, which made for a very humourous, yet enlightening documentary, revealed how little these two guys from Boston (and likely most of us) know about the foods we eat every day. They also shed light on the extensive eventual destinations of the corn they grew. I’ve explored just a few of these revelations in greater depth: these are some of the many foods we regularly consume—that you may not have considered—containing corn.
In recent decades, corn has become the main feed of animals raised for meat: chickens, cows, pigs, and even farmed fish. The meat industry has exploded, particularly in the US, over the past century, now worth more than $800 billion annually. With the average American consuming 5.7 ounces of meat per day, and according to the North American Meat Institute, the US meat industry processed more than 93 billion pounds of meat in 2013 to meet this demand; that’s 8.6 billion chickens, 33.2 million cattle, 112 million hogs, and over 240 million more turkeys, sheep, and lambs. All these animals need to be fed, and since corn costs significantly less than its counterparts, wheat and soy (at $4.10 per bushel, versus $6.60 and $10.30 per bushel, respectively), since these animals are mass produced for the purpose of profit in the meat industry, cheap is good. However, it also raises some ethical and health concerns: given that corn is an untraditional feed (for example, cows traditionally eat grass), antibiotics are often required to compensate for the deficit in nutrients. Given that antibiotic-free meats (read: those that were fed a more traditional diet, not requiring added antibiotics) now comprise a minority segment of the meat market, therefore much of the mainstream meat consumed by Americans was likely fed corn.
Sodas and Sugary Drinks
The process of converting corn to a key usable ingredient of soda is even more complex than that of meat. High fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, is a key ingredient in many soda and sugary drinks. HFCS is made when corn starch, a carbohydrate extracted from corn, is modified using enzymes to change some of its glucose contents to fructose, a different form of sugar. While this process and end product are deemed safe by the US Food and Drug Administration, HFCS has been linked to heart disease, obesity, cancer, dementia, and tooth decay, among other serious afflictions. However, since HFCS is a more cost effective, less labour-intensive sweetener than traditional cane sugar, and given that sodas are amongst the cheapest drinks on the market, cheap sweetener is a very good thing. And the benefits of cheap HFCS do not end at sodas and sugary drinks. The popular corn-derived ingredient can also be found in candy bars, sweetened yogurt, canned fruit, salad dressing, and juices, although this list is by no means exhaustive.
Much like meat, dairy products contain corn as a result of the feed consumed by dairy-producing animals. As mentioned above, mass production of animals for meat, as well as dairy, necessitates cheap, albeit untraditional feed, and corn fits the bill. Dairy products including milk and butter both contain small portions of corn that was fed to the cows, sheep, and goats that produce the raw milk eventually processed into consumable dairy products. Yogurt creates a double whammy, as it contains some corn from the raw product, as well as in the form of high fructose corn syrup often added when yogurt is sweetened and flavoured.
The vast extent of corn is not limited to the food industry. As the main characters of King Corn noted, it is nearly impossible to precisely track all the places that corn ends up. Indeed, after successfully growing their acre of corn for the film, they were unable to determine its eventual use. It is safe to assume that corn is everywhere, though sometimes in disguise. Corn is a key ingredient in toothpaste as sorbitol, derived from corn to add flavour and texture. It is also found in powdered makeups like eyeshadow and blush as zea mays, corn’s binomial name; shampoo, in the form of citric acid, derived from corn; and envelope seals as a key ingredient in nitrocellulose glue that provides adhesive.
These days, there are few ways to avoid corn. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, potential health questions have been raised regarding antibiotics, illnesses arising from HFCS consumption, and genetic modification. In fact, the corn grown by the characters in King Corn was genetically modified with Liberty Link (a Bayer brand GMO) to resist chemical pesticides. If you do decide to avoid corn, a few tactics can be suggested: for meat and dairy, seek out options where animals are antibiotic free; as such, they have likely consumed a more traditional feed. Cut out or significantly reduce your intake of sodas and sugary drinks; water is a far healthier option, or if you prefer something sweet, homemade juices are not difficult to make. For everything else, seek out more natural options for shampoos, toothpastes, and makeups. With personal motivation, it is possible to reduce the 80 to 90 percent of foods we regularly consume containing corn.