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How Corn Took over America: Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan Essay

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Updated: Mar 13th, 2022

Industrial corn

Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma has been in the limelight for a long time now. The omnivore’s dilemma arises from the fact that when human beings are capable of eating anything that is found in nature, it will then be hard to identify what you should eat, what is healthy for you and what is not. Herbivores like bears do not have to worry over what they will eat every day, they just have to find the leaves of a eucalyptus tree and their mean is complete. However, human beings and other omnivores like rats and pigs will eat unhealthily just because the dilemma of having to choose what to eat proves to be too hard for them, or because they have no idea on the contents of the foods that they are eating. In the first chapter of his book, Pollan argues that corn has been the order of today’s meals. Almost a quarter of all the foods there are in the supermarket contain corn.

In this essay, my main focus is on the first chapter of his book, “Industrial Corn”, to explain what it is that we eat from all those products that use corn as one of its ingredients. Looking at the supermarket today, almost every product is linked to either a plant or an animal. From the vegetables and the fruit section where we find the carrots, broccoli, eggplant, cabbage, potato, onion, and cucumbers. The apples, pineapples, oranges, grapes and the bananas, some of which are even sometimes sprinkled with water, creating a sense of the fresh morning dew on fresh fruits, and attracting us to them (Pollan, 2007).

Moving on to the meats section, you will find meat from lambs, cows, chicken, turkey, and from the different types of fish there are in the sea. In short, almost every food there is in the supermarket will have a link to the food chain, something that we the consumers think is none of our concern. Who cares what food the chicken, the cows, the lambs or the fish ate, or worse still, where it came from? We forget the wise words of Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a famous French gastronomist who said,” show me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”

Pollan continues to say that in his research and attempts to follow the food chains for the industrial foods, which have become the order of the day for the common American, he traveled widely to some places and states. During his travels, he always ended up at one commonplace, the American Corn Belt. It turned out that most of the products in the supermarket are a product of Zea mays, commonly known to the Americans as corn. Corn is the food for the cows, the pigs, lambs, the chicken, turkey, and fishes like the tilapia, catfish, and the salmon, which despite being a carnivore is nowadays being fed on corn to prevent it from eating the other fish species. This means that the eggs we eat today are made of corn. So are all the products from dairy cows that feed on the corn like milk, yogurt and cheese.

Moving on to the processed foods, corn continues to be a common ingredient. An example is the chicken nugget, which is made of meat from corn feeding chicken, not to mention other ingredients like the starch from corn, which holds the nugget together. There is also the batter to coat it, which contains the cornflour and finally the frying oil, a corn product, where it is fried. More corn products in the chicken nugget are citric acid, leavenings and golden colorants. In America, it is a common practice to take a meal with a soft drink, especially at the fast foods. However, what people don’t know is that this is adding more corn to your body. Why? Because almost all the fruit drinks and sodas that are in the market have been using high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener since the 1980s. This situation does not change when it comes to taking beer. The beverage is made from glucose, which is got from corn, and then fermented into alcohol.

Pollan advises people to read the ingredients of what they buy at the supermarket, and they will find that corn is an ingredient, only that it is written in chemical terms. Chemical names such as ascorbic acid, lactic acid, maltose, and caramel color to mention but a few all stand for corn. Corn is in the canned fruits, soups, syrups, ketchup, coffee whitener, hot dogs, mayonnaise, cake mixes, candies snacks and starches. Pollan says that a quarter of all the food and the non-food products sold in today’s supermarkets, approximated to be about forty-five thousand, all contain corn. He continues to say that cleansers, toothpaste, wall varnish, papers and cosmetics are all among the non food products that contain corn. There are very many ways in which corn manifests its self, but the question is what percentage of you does corn manifest? (Corn facts, 2009).

The Maya people of Mexico are at times called the corn people, not because they look like corn, but because they are so dependent on corn. It has been their staple food for the longest time possible, approximated to be about nine thousand years. Some have gone to an extent of calling it the miraculous grass. Research has shown that only 60 percent of the food calories that these Mexicans eat are not from corn. Thus, a Mexican does not lie when he says “I am corn.” Americans, who can not say they are corn people, and yet 25 percent of the products they buy in the market contain corn, display a lack of imagination. This is a fact, because only a few, if not none of the Americans can realize that coke contains corn. Scientists in the food industry continue to warn us that only seventeen thousand of the total products in the market contain a genuine display of their ingredients. The rest have a clever molecular rearrangement, a fact that we can not be able to tell, so we continue to buy the in genuinely displayed products as we do not have a choice.

How corn became so popular

Corn originated from Central America in 1492, and was first discovered by Christopher Columbus. He described it as a tall grass which had an ear as big as a human hand, on which grains were attached. There are several advantages that made, corn to thrive in the land of the Native Americans, one of them being that it does not require a lot of minerals to grow, and the favorable climate that it enjoyed. A man called Squanto taught the pilgrims how to plant corn in 1921 during spring. They were excited about it because it grew very fast and produced a lot of grains even when planted on a small patch. It had adapted well to the North American soils and climate, and became a lot better than the grains that were introduced by the Europeans.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was discovered that a cross breed between corn of different kinds produced much better corn, in that the product of the cross breed produced more yields than the parents. Due to the huge benefits that the corn had, it made it to the industrial age. More and more uses of the corn were identified, and that was how it managed to become a part of so many products in the American market. Today, corn has become one of the major crops grown in America. In 2005, 42 percent of the total corn produced in the world was from America. 17 percent was set apart for industrial use, 25 percent used as food and for export, while the rest was used as feed for livestock (Pollan, 2007).

In conclusion, I would say that the saying,” you are what you eat,” will remain to be a painful truth. Americans may live as far as they can from the corn fields, but they will continue to feed on corn for a long time, knowingly or unknowingly. They may be striving to eat natural foods, but what they do not know is that these foods contain corn as a major ingredient, so that they keep on eating the same nutrients over and over. It is clear that in Americans are fed by corn, from the dairy products, poultry products, fish products, soft and fruit drinks, the vitamin pills we take, to the junk foods we all eat. A bushel of the corn grown uses approximately 33 percent of a gallon of oil. A considerable amount of the oils from corn evaporate and form acidic rainfall, poisoning drinking water from all ecosystems. The pesticides that keep pests from spoiling the crops in the fields, and the fuels used by the trains, are all users of corn.

More and more corn is grown as years pass by, because as the prices of corn decrease, then the farmers resolve to grow more corn the following season. This results to an overproduction of corn in America, hence the discovery of more ways to use it, while farmers earn little money. We can make clear decisions on what we should eat, and make efforts to have a say on how the foods that we eat are produced. But as long as we keep quiet and let the manufacturers determine the products that will use in food production, we will remain to be (Crumpacker Bunny, 2006)

Works cited

  1. Corn facts, 2009, Sotatech.
  2. Crumpacker Bunny, Washington post, you are what you eat, 2006.
  3. Pollan Michael, The omnivore’s dilemma: a natural history of four meals, New York, Penguin Press, 2007
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