Living on a Diet Less Corny Is No Joke, Filmmakers Find

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 26, 2007

If a food-deprivation stunt fell during the biggest feasting time of the year, would anyone care?

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney are the ones who gave it a shot last month. They are the likable young collaborators who pulled off a small cinematic feat in the fall with "King Corn," their documentary about the corn-ing of America. Entertaining, enlightening and not so heavy-handed, the film has inspired audiences to recognize how corn-based products pervade their diets, medicines and even the "pure" vanilla extract they may have recently added to their holiday cookie doughs.

The former Yale collegiates, now 28 and 27, respectively, became hyper-aware of the many ways corn played a part in their typically fast-food/processed-food eating regimen, as well as in the nation's agribusiness. On a multi-city film tour, the pair kept fielding the same question from food-concerned media: Had "King Corn" changed the way they eat?

Not so much, they admitted. In the few years' time between the film's wrap and release, Ellis and Cheney managed to eat more grass-fed beef and less beef produced from corn feedlots. They were horrified to see what corn could do to a cow's digestive tract. But they slipped back into their old high-fructose-corn-syrup-filled snack habits. As it happens, no one needs to be eating a lot of corn and its derivatives. "It is a terrible food in itself," says University of Virginia organic geochemist Stephen Macko. "It doesn't have a lot of essential amino acids or good levels of protein."

So Ellis and Cheney chose November, with its especially corn-centric holiday meal of plenty, to challenge each other with a corn-free month on the road, eating in airport terminals and chain restaurants and at their own homes in Connecticut and Maine. The proof would be in the retesting of their carbon isotope composition, done painlessly back in Macko's lab.

Early in the nine months of filming, Macko had used a mass spectrometer to measure the carbon isotopes from C4 plants in mere micrograms of their hair; C4 refers to the four-carbon-chain biochemical category of dry-area plants that include grasses, sugar cane and corn.

The scientist has used such powerful technology to investigate the dietary makeup of 10,000-year-old Chilean mummies, canvasback ducks from the Chesapeake Bay and preserved locks from George Washington, so the guys' request was easy to field.

"I can tell where people fall, in terms of the herbivore, carnivore or ominivore spectrum," Macko said last week by phone from Charlottesville. "Comparatively, American Indians from hundreds of years ago might have registered at 90 percent on a C4 carbon scale. In 2004, Curt and Ian were at about 55 percent the first time I ran their tests. Oetzi the Iceman [the 5,000-year-old mummy found frozen in the Alps in 1991]? He had zero percent."

Ellis and Cheney spent the month hungry. Both said they consumed "lower on the food chain," or trophic level as Macko calls it, which means they ate unprocessed fruits and vegetables. Ellis consulted corn-allergy Web sites such as to get a handle on which products to avoid; even his toothpaste presented a threat of corn-tamination. He found out that some vanilla extract is thinned with corn alcohol and that the iodine in table salt is distributed with a corn-based stabilizer.

"I ate sauteed spinach for breakfast, a lot of salads for lunch and grass-fed lamb or halibut for dinner," he reports. "I baked my own bread. It was hard going without milk or eggs, or cream [from corn-fed cows] in my coffee." A personal ebb took place at the airport in Des Moines, where he paid a hefty $4 for a small fruit cup -- "and even then I bet there was corn-based wax on the apple," he says. At the least, there probably was corn syrup.

Cheney checked labels for a while, ate "more oatmeal than I've ever had in my whole life" and resolved desperate moments by devouring an occasional bag of potato chips fried in cottonseed oil. "It only happened when I didn't pack appropriate rations," he says. Meanwhile, media types presented Macko with samples of their own. "A reporter from Fox News measured at 79 percent!" he says.

As the retesting date loomed, Thanksgiving proved the largest obstacle for Ellis: "It was preposterous. My mom went out of her way to get an expensive heritage turkey. I cheated a little." For Cheney, it was no big deal; he scored with some breast of wild turkey from a neighbor, some mashed spuds minus the butter and cream, and broccoli.

At the end of the month they sent strands of hair and received Macko's results: The amounts of carbon with corn markers had dropped for both. Ellis, down to 39 percent. Cheney, 44 percent.

"Now that the month is done," Ellis says, "I'm not being a purist. But I am trying hard to not eat too much high-fructose corn syrup. I make an exception for ketchup, though."

Cheney says: "I didn't like omitting dairy products. That revealed some of the absurdity in our avoidance of corn. There were things I'd normally feel good about eating that I didn't eat."

Scientist Macko found the outcomes most positive. "They were eating a lot more vegetables, because their nitrogen was from foods lower on the food chain. I could tell," he says.

And did the media shove back from their party buffets long enough to take note? Ellis and Cheney's hardworking publicist did her part. The farm bill passed without much change in corn subsidies. Ellis blogged about it, and Cheney answered this reporter's queries.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company