Monday, February 15, 2010

The ubiquity of corn

This week’s blog post focuses on nutrition and the foods you choose to cook with. These days, corn and corn byproducts can be found in a staggering number of products sold in the grocery store. From high fructose corn syrup used to sweeten sodas and other beverages to corn-fed beef and chicken, corn has become ubiquitous in the food industry. This is thanks in part to the cheap cost of corn due to government subsidies provided to farmers who grow the crop. Because of the subsidies, consumer prices of corn and corn byproducts are more than a quarter below the actual cost of production, making it cheaper to use high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener than other natural sweeteners, and to use corn and other grains for livestock feed.

Health effects

The digestion and absorption of fructose, used in high fructose corn syrup, is physiologically different from that of glucose (a natural sweetener): unlike glucose, fructose does not trigger the release of insulin, increase leptin production, or suppress ghrelin production. What?? Basically, these processes all regulate how much you eat by telling your brain that you’re full. So, when they don’t happen, you eat more. Also, fructose is digested directly in the liver, where it’s turned into fat and enters the blood stream in the form of triglycerides (FAT!), which can lead to insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes. The introduction and increased use of high fructose corn syrup in the food industry since the early 1980s has closely mirrored the obesity epidemic that our nation has witnessed in the past few decades. High fructose corn syrup has also been linked with vitamin and mineral deficiency: people who consume high amounts of added sugar have below-average levels of a number of essential nutrients, and soft drinks containing high fructose corn syrup are largely replacing milk in American homes, resulting in calcium deficiency.

The health effects of eating grain-fed beef, chicken, and fish (yes, fish) are also surprising. A diet of corn and soy rather than their natural diet of grass drastically alters the fat content of beef, significantly increasing overall fat content, saturated fat content, and lowering polyunsaturated fat content (a good fat!). Omega-3 fats, which have been shown to raise your metabolism, are 40% lower in grain-fed beef than grass-fed beef. Grass-fed beef also contains more beta-carotene, which, when converted to Vitamin A in the body, is essential for normal vision, bone growth, reproduction, cell division, skin health, and immune function. Similar effects have been found when comparing grain-fed chickens and fish with those who were fed what they naturally eat.

What can I do?

Many people are hesitant to drink diet sodas and other beverages due to speculation surrounding the long-term health effects of artificial sweeteners. Our suggestion is to stop drinking soda and other soft drinks – diet or regular – altogether. Yep, we said it. Stop drinking soda. Instead, drink healthier options such as water, 100% pure fruit juice, or home-brewed iced tea. Fruit juice can be diluted with water to reduce sugar intake and to stretch it out a little so it lasts longer, or you can top it off with some seltzer water for a soda-like effect. Brewing your own iced tea is not only healthier and cheaper than drinking artificially sweetened store-bought iced tea, but allows you to choose which flavor of tea you want to brew and to sweeten it with a natural sweetener, if you choose. Why not experiment with something new?!

Meats such as chicken and beef are a daily feature on many of our dinner tables and provide necessary nutrients such as protein and iron. There are ways to continue eating meat while avoiding grain-fed meat. Grass-fed beef is becoming increasingly available to consumers, especially in health food stores such as Whole Foods or your local farm. Check out a website such as to help you find a local farm. When buying eggs, seek out omega-3 eggs. These have a much healthier omega-3 to omega-6 ratio than those produced by grain-fed hens. Another alternative is to substitute vegetarian protein options such as tofu or beans for some of your meals.

In today’s economy it’s often difficult to afford healthier foods, and corn subsidies have allowed the food industry to offer foods containing corn products at a cheap price and in large portions. Ask your congressperson to support a drastic reduction of corn subsidies and to support incentive programs for farmers to switch to healthier crops such as fruit and vegetables, which currently receive only one-tenth of one percent of crop subsidies. In the meantime, recognize that your health is one of the most important things you’ve got and choose to promote it by spending a little more on healthier foods.


Bray, G., Neilsen, S., and Popkin, B. "Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity," American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 79 (2004): 537.
Daley, C., Abbott, A., Doyle, P., Nader, G., and Larson, S. "A literature review of the value-added nutrients found in grass-fed beef products," 28 (2005).
Daley, C., Harrison, K., Doyle, P., Abbott, A., Nader, G., and Larson, S. "Effect of Ration on Lipid Profiles in Beef," California State University, College of Agriculture, University of California Cooperative Extension Service, 2006.
Fields, S. "The fat of the land: Do agricultural subsidies foster poor health?," Environmental Health Perspectives 112 (2004): A820.
Friedlander, J., Bauman, E., and Ed, M. "How America’s Corn-ucopia Is Making Us Fat," Holistic Nutrition and Culinary Arts (2007): 1-5.
Pollan, M. "The (Agri) Cultural Contradictions Of Obesity," The New York Times, October 23, 2003.


  1. Home brewed iced tea also saves money, tastes great, and you have a lot less to lug to the recycling! So that's three more reasons besides health! Thanks for a great site.

    Also this one is great reporting. Any chance you could do a report on CSAs? I love them.

  2. Thanks for the comment and support! We have CSAs on our list of upcoming topics to report on.


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