{Omnivore’s Dilemma: Part Uno}

27 Jan

I realized today that I am going to have to do my January book review in parts.  There is just too much information for one post.  This month, I finally read The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  This has been on my To Be Read list for almost a year, but because I would rather receive a recycled copy rather than buying a new one, I waited for it to be swapped.  Then the holidays rolled around, and I think I probably read Twilight in there a few more times.  JK, JK…not really. 

I found the book, I can’t say enjoyable, as it was more disturbing, but definitely worth the read.  The author, Michael Pollan, presented the information in an honest manner.  What I mean by honest  is that even though he was presenting a very controversial topic, I did not feel a bias radiating from the pages.  In fact, in many cases, he made very strong cases for the other side…before he presented the common sense, of course.  I didn’t feel like I was being pressured, bullied, and drawn-in to a hype or “eating trend”.  It was simply, “here’s the information. Make your decision.” Granted, this is only one person’s view.  But I’m a believer in common-sense, and Pollan presents common-sense.

So what is the Omnivore’s Dilemma?  Michael Pollan explains it this way: “Like the hunter-gatherer picking a novel mushroom off the forest floor and consulting his sense memory to determine its edibility, we pick up the package in the supermarket and, no longer so confident of our senses, scrutinize the label, scratching our heads over the meaning of phrases like, ‘heart healthy’, ‘no trans fat’, ‘cage-free’, or ‘range-fed’.  What is ‘natural grill flavor’ or TBHQ or xantham gum?  What is all this stuff anyway, and where in the world did it come from?” (5). He continues, “What should I eat [can] no longer be addressed without first addressing [one] other even more straightforward question: ‘What am I eating?’” (17).  It is argued that if we knew, “we would surely change the way we eat.” (11).

Change the way I eat, indeed.  I’ve mentioned before that I’ve already made major revamps, but this book has helped to further understand the jargon found on food labels.  And although I’ve known for awhile that TBHQ is some sort of “not-natural” food additive, knowing that it is short for butylhydroquinone will have me avoiding it at all costs.  Why?  It’s lighter fluid.  BUT?!?! How does that end up in my food?  The FDA allows .02% to be sprayed or used in foods.  That’s good because a single gram can cause nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse.  5 grams can cause death (114).  BUT, surely this is found in weird foods that no one eats, right?! 

Ever had a McDonald’s Chicken Nugget?  You are the proud owner of a stomach that has encountered lighter fluid.  Congrats! (And just think…how many chicken nuggets have you eaten in your life?  Ever had a 20 piece (or two 20 pieces) at one sitting?  Yuck.  They also have “anti-foaming agents” like dimethylpolysiloxene, which is a suspected carcinogen (cancer-causer) and an established mutagen (mutates DNA), tumorigen (causes tumors), and reproductive effector (damages reproductive organs (not just the ladies’ fellas…)).  It’s also flammable.  Now, what was in the nugget in the first place that made adding this seem less harmful?! This is scary, considering that 1/3 of America’s children eat fast food every day and 19% of American meals are eaten in the car (110).

A large portion of the book is spent on corn.  Why?  Because there are around 45,000 products in the supermarket, and more than 25% of them contain corn (19).  If you’re further interested in corn, and the big hype of it right now, check out the movie King Corn if you’re not planning on reading this book. 

A few points on corn/growing crops and depending upon them on such a large scale for you to think about:

1. There is a long history between the government and farmers.  There is also a very convoluted process for paying farmers for corn. Why? Well, I promised myself I wouldn’t get into politics on this blog…so I’ll just go with the facts.  Today, the true cost (what farmers are being paid at the market) for a bushel of corn is $1 less than what it costs to produce the bushel of corn.  That’s like me saying, “it takes $3 to make this beautiful hand-crafted card, but I’m going to sell it at the craft fair for $1.75.”  GREAT capitalist, I am.  The government pays the farmers the difference (or in my analogy, the government would send me a check for $1.25).  Great for the farmers (not really, but that’s another complicated story(and btw, I’m not blaming the farmers)), bad for you and me.  You see, $5 billion a year of taxpayer’s money is spent on paying that difference, or what the government calls subsidies. So basically, you are paying me $1.75 because I decided to sell my card for less than it cost me to make it.

2.  This sounds a like a pretty sweet deal.  But, the more farmers that grow corn, the more corn gets sold at the market.  Basic economics of supply and demand tell you that when everybody is selling a lot of the same product, prices will fall, as everyone keeps dropping the price to entice customers to buy from them, even though they can buy it anywhere.  The more the price falls, though, the more corn the farmers plant, so that they have more corn to sell to make more money from (which also means more money the taxpayers are paying, too).  Even though the price is cheap in the supermarket, you’re still paying the same price because you’re paying more in subsidies through the government.  The more corn that is on the market, and that the government essentially owns now, the more uses we must find for all of this corn.  That being said, we have found some really strange uses for corn.

3.  60% of this corn is fed to livestock-most of it beef cattle.  Cattle are grass eaters by nature.  They are not designed to eat corn.  (More on that later…)

4. Corn that doesn’t go to the feed-lots to feed livestock goes to a “wet-milling” plant where it is broken down into “other” corn products: fructose, MSG, etc. The corn starts by getting a nice, hot soak in a spa tub…in sulfur dioxide.  Then it goes through a lot more grinding and soaking (which uses 5 gallons of water to process 1 bushel of corn + other energy).  What’s left is cornstarch, which can be used in laundry detergent…or food.  Whatever.  You’re also left with High Fructose Corn Syrup (which I’ve already determined is evil, so I’m not the most unbiased population to get information from), and “other items” which are used to make adhesives, coatings, plastics, gels, and “viscosity-control agents for food” (90).  After nothing much is left, they take the “steep water” (sulfur dioxide and all) and feed it to the livestock.  Cause they get thirsty eatin’ so much corn, you know?

5. Of the 38 ingredients in a McDonald’s Chicken Nugget, 13 come from corn.  Most others are completely synthetic ingredients made in a chemical or petroleum factory.  Carbon graphing was used to determine just exactly how much of an item was made of corn for certain items on the McDonald’s menu: soda (100% corn), milk shake (78% corn), salad dressing (65% corn), chicken nuggets (36% corn), cheeseburger (52% corn) and French fries (23% corn) (117).

 milkshakes600x600.jpg image by kate_m

The implications of this are unknown, but as omnivores, we are not designed to eat only one food.  Coupled with the actual corn that we do eat knowingly, we are essentially nothing but corn.  And part of that corn has been so radically changed and broken down and put back together in a lab somewhere, that we have no idea the havoc it is wreaking on our bodies.  The corn we grow now has also been so hybridized and genetically engineered, that we have no idea the havoc we’ve wreaked on the corn.

One Response to “{Omnivore’s Dilemma: Part Uno}”


  1. {Omnivore’s Dilemma: Part Zwei} « This Girl's Canon - January 31, 2010

    […] mentioned earlier, a huge portion of the book is devoted to discussing corn.  Why? Check out Part 1.  It should be noted that the problem is not necessarily corn.  It’s the amount of corn…and […]

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