Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Click on the following to catch up: Introduction, Part 1a.

Complex Foods

Most of the modern, processed foods we eat come from corn with soybeans at a close second. Corn provides the sugars and starches in our foods, soybeans the protein and both of them can provide the fat. Any of these words on a food label probably refer to corn: citric & lactic acid, glucose, fructose, maltodextrin, ethanol, sorbitol, mannitol, xantham gum, starches, dextrins, cyclodextrins, MSG, etc... It is an amazing science which can break corn down into its little parts and use those to create hundreds and thousands of new products for the American consumer.
On one end of the spectrum is corn and on the other is the human. Between the two are mega-companies trying to increase profits, hampered by the challenges that corn may get diseased or have a poor harvest and the limits of the human body to only be able to consume so much (called the "fixed stomach"). To battle the first problem, the companies have found that the more complex the foods are, the easier it is to substitute cheaper supplies without changing the consumer's experience. To quote the author's quote:

"As a management consultant once advised his food industry clients, 'The further a product's identity moves from a specific raw material - that is, the more processing steps involved - the less vulnerable is its processor' to the variability of nature."

To deal with the limited human, the only way to keep profits at a decent rise is
 to either market the same old stuff as more "expensive" products or to find a way to make people eat more. These companies have been working towards both goals. The first is obvious, but the second?  Well, apparently one of the new discoveries being made is an indigestible starch. Why is this good? Because if people are unable to digest it and the body doesn't break down those starches, then people (like diabetics) can eat more with out it "harming" them.


Three out of five Americans are considered "overweight" and one out of five are "obese".  Adult On-Set Diabetes has been relabeled as Type II Diabetes because it being found in more and more children. It is estimated that a child born in 2000 has a one in three chance of getting diabetes. There are many factors involved - Marketing to younger and younger demographics, decreased exercise, affluence and being able to afford high-fat diets, etc... However, what is interesting is that the rising rate of obesity is considered to have started in the '70s, the same time that preventions from the over-production of foods were taken away and cheap food farm policies were started (where the production is so great that the costs are lowered).

In 1980, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) started flooding into the consumer market. It was slightly cheaper than sugar and started finding it's way into nearly every processed food - from condiments, to processed meats, breads, cereals, all the gamut of sweets out there, and above all, soda. Ironically, as we consumed more HFCS, we did not reduce our sugar intake to compensate. In fact, with all sugars combined, Americans eat about 158 lbs of sugar annually. One of the ways we have increased our sugar intake so drastically is through the marketing ploy of "super-sizing". Researchers have found that when given larger portions, people and animals don't stop when they are full, but rather eat 30% more than they would have otherwise.
High fructose corn syrup gets subsidized in the US, but carrots don't. Obesity is reaching epidemic levels, but farm bills keep being signed to keep the unhealthiest foods the cheapest for consumers.

Cheeseburgers & Chicken Nuggets

Pollan takes his family to McDonalds to complete his journey following corn. He gets a cheeseburger, his wife a "premium salad" with Cesear dressing and his son chooses chicken nuggets, a milk shake and a desert of freeze-dried ice cream pellets. They also have fries and soda. Pollan then analyzes the meal they are eating, and he spends the majority of this portion breaking down the chicken nugget - one of the number one foods for American children.

There are 38 ingredients in a chicken nugget - 13 of which are derived from corn. Many of the other ingredients are various chemicals and additives to keep the nugget appealing in look and flavor. The worst of these is TBHQ (tertiary butylhydroquinone), a form of butane - a lighter fluid! It is either sprayed on to the nugget or on to the box it is in to preserve freshness. The FDA allows no more than .02 percent of TBHQ in a nugget. That's *good* because 1 gram of the stuff can cause serious side effects and 5 grams can kill.

Pollan takes his family's meal to a friend with a mass spectrometer (a nifty machine that breaks down matter to its basic carbon identities). The cheeseburger, chicken nuggets, salad dressing, milk shake and the sodas each were found to be 50-100% derived from corn. Not such a diverse meal after all.

Next Pollan heads into the world of "Organic".  Stay tuned to find out if these more expensive options are actually better for our health.

Comments (1)

On November 8, 2010 at 8:52 PM , Anonymous said...

great summary! its shocking how companies value profit over well being of society