Lecithin, triglycerides, glucose syrup, maltodextrin, crystalline fructose, ascorbic acid, dextrose, lactic acid, lysine, maltose, monosodium glutamate (MSG), xanthan gum all have one thing in common- they all come from corn. And those are just the edible items. Why is everything a derivative of corn? The short answer is that we’re in an endless struggle to offset corn surpluses and consequently dropping prices. Since the introduction of hybrid corn species, which were engineered to withstand chemical fertilizers around the 1950s, corn yields have been swelling ever since. After WWII, the government needed something to do with all of the excess chemicals used in warfare, and once it was discovered that they could be used to add nitrogen to the soil (which all plants need to grow), traditional, biodynamic crop rotations and the farmers that employed them couldn’t dream of keeping up. In the last half century, farmers who had a surplus of corn were provided government loans for any crop they couldn’t sell, effectively subsidizing the overproduction of corn. So while we’re swimming in a flood of corn, small farmers are going bankrupt trying to keep up with impossibly high yields, corn refiners are busy inventing new ways to use corn in your “fruit juice”, and our friends at Monsanto are laughing all the way to the bank, with their patents for their corn seed in their back pocket. That’s the long version.
The Unassuming Cow:
The modern supermarket has been constructed in such a way so as to maximize the distance, both figuratively and literally, between you and what you are about to consume. Certainly it’s unpleasant to think of the life of the cow from which last night’s meatloaf was made and your role in the termination of that life, but what sort of quality of life did that cow have? Living knee-deep in a pool of feces in an overcrowded concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, eating corn which it has only recently equipped itself to digest (through steroids) isn’t exactly the picture of paradise. For the cow being forced on a conveyor belt to its inevitable death, are we doing it a favor by putting her out of her misery? Do we as humans owe anything to our animal neighbors?
Chicken is easily the most common meat consumed by Americans every year. From chicken wings, breasts and nuggets to all sorts of fried chicken, it’s become a staple in the American diet. Certainly the chickens with access to fresh air and grass have it better than those who are force-fed corn to fatten them up as fast as possible, but once again, the question becomes one of moral tolerance. How much does the wellbeing of a chicken really matter, especially if its fate is the same? Despite our distance from the process, these are very real questions, ones you can only answer for yourself. Can you live with being responsible for an animal’s death? If so, is your conscience alright with knowing about the conditions in which it lived? Let’s put it this way: there’s a reason journalists aren’t allowed into animal feedlots.
Disgust is one of those topics rarely spoken about, given its apparent universality. Psychologist Steven Pinker described disgust as being a sort of ‘intuitive microbiology’. That is, we’re disgusted biologically by those things that could make us sick- feces, vomit, urine and rotting meat or corpses. Could our reaction to a dead, yet perfectly edible animal be similar? On your plate or in between two sesame seed buns, it’s perfectly appropriate and appetizing, but could it be that we’ve become so far removed from the processes of our hunter-gatherer ancestors that the sight alone of an animal carcass is beginning to repulse us? If we find something so disgusting that we can’t bear to look at it, is distancing ourselves from the process the best solution? What can we eat instead?
Our Old Friend
High Fructose Corn Syrup: you’ve heard about it, you have a sense that it’s bad for you, but everything in moderation can’t be so terrible, right? One of the things most interesting about HFCS is our willingness to forget its danger for the sake of our taste buds. We are hard wired, in fact, to be most compelled to consume things with the most calories per bite (or sip). Biologically, this is perfectly efficient and reasonable. But if you find a way to concentrate these calories into a sugar substitute, you’ve got something not only highly addictive but highly profitable on your hands. Since the 1980s, when HFCS first crossed the ‘sweetness barrier’ and was first substituted as an ingredient in soft drinks for sugar, every major beverage switched over, cutting costs and boosting portion sizes. These drinks have so much sugar, in fact, that the only thing stopping you from uncontrollably vomiting from consuming so much at once is the phosphoric acid. Who’s thirsty?
What are we to do then? Long lasting change doesn’t happen overnight and a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle isn’t exactly the cheapest. Millions of people don’t even have access to fresh produce, even if they wanted to eat more sustainably. Unfortunately there isn’t a right or wrong answer. But that’s not what this is about. Rather than arguing about the consequences of what you feed yourself and your loved ones with, why not look for a solution where we can all win? Both we and our animal neighbors would all be better off if we took a second to think about where our food is coming from before throwing it in our shopping carts. Maybe those carrots are looking a little more appealing after you find out what’s in that frozen dinner.