Posted by: Amelia | June 2, 2007

The Maize of Our Lives

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by journalism professor and food anthropologist Michael Pollan, is my weekend reading. I’m only a few chapters in, but it’s already fascinating. So far, the book has centered around the curious history of corn, a cereal that Pollan asserts is unlike any other in its yield of energy-rich carbohydrates for human (and now animal) consumption. As a result, corn is everywhere. “There are some forty-five thousand items in the average American supermarket, and more than a quarter of them now contain corn,” Pollan writes. The indirect use of corn is also staggering. “Corn feeds the chicken and the pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the tilapia and, increasingly, even the salmon, a carnivore by nature that the fish farmers are reengineering to tolerate corn.”

Pollan explored the political side of corn in April in a New York Times Magazine article detailing the range of unintended consequences of farm subsidies, most notably the link to obesity. Thanks in part to subsidies, the emptiest calories are also the cheapest. “Drewnowski found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots,” Pollan reported of a University of Washington researcher wondering why obesity was more common among the poor. “Looking for something to wash down those chips, he discovered that his dollar bought 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice.”

Only weeks before this article was published, I decided to do a little experiment of my own. For the first time in my life, I counted the calories I ate each day for a week. As a skinny little stick of a child, I was fortunate enough to avoid the obsession with calories prevalent among young women. But as I get a bit older (my 24th birthday is this coming Monday), I figured, I might not be able to be so laissez-faire about my diet. Well, the week-long assessment convinced me of two things: 1) my diet is pretty reasonable, all things considered, and 2) counting calories takes all the fun out of eating.

Over the course of the week, I found websites to help me determine the content of foods without label information (i.e. everything I cooked at home). In finding these sites, though, I stumbled upon another breed of calorie consciousness that goes to the heart of Pollan’s theses. Take, for example, this site glowing over high calories-per-penny ratios for chocolate ice cream and Necco Wafers. Why are those two-for-one Mars Bars so cheap (37 calories per penny)? Well, they’re mostly corn syrup. An entry on My Money Blog arranged photos of various foods by their price per calorie; it’s amazing to see the color shift of the pictured foods, from brown and white at the cheap end to a rainbow of color at the expensive end. Fruits and vegetables are healthy and filling, but also comparatively expensive. And yet, only recently have they been proposed as an addition to the Women, Infants, and Children supplemental food program for low-income families.

What would happen, I wonder, if corn were not so heavily subsidized? Would all food simply become more expensive? Is it better to avoid a tradeoff of cheap vs. healthy even if it means raising the empty calories to healthy calorie prices? Or is there a way that the price of fruits and vegetables could be brought down to Mars Bar level? I’m not sure if Pollan addresses these questions in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but I hope he does so in a future book or article. Now that the problem of cheap calories has been firmly established, what is the solution?



  1. Even if Pollen doesn’t have a solution, he’s contributed a lot just by exposing and articulating the problem. There are “observers” and there are “reformers” and “actors.” These characteristics are sometimes found in one person, but often not. It’s interesting to think of who on the political scene–Clinton, Obama, Gore–would be most effective (and in what forum) proposing and achieving solutions.

  2. […] ways, Kingsolver’s book echoes Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I started this summer but never finished. Both books address, to varying extents, the problems associated with industrial […]

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