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Five myths about corn

Actually, it’s not all genetically modified — or unhealthy.

Today, corn is inescapable, consumed with intent and by accident in equal measure.
Today, corn is inescapable, consumed with intent and by accident in equal measure. (Aly Song/Reuters)

Corn is the stuff of country ballads and Woody Guthrie anthems. A symbol of American abundance and immoderation, it is perhaps the original cultural appropriation: Those Pilgrims who made it through the winter of 1621 owed a debt to Wampanoag maize. Today, corn is inescapable, consumed with intent and by accident in equal measure. Americans dispatch 160 pounds of it per capita each year — imagine 69 million football fields of corn, much of it deep-shag spread across 18 states — as high-fructose corn syrup, as corn oil, as hard-to-pronounce things like maltitol and xylitol. A handful of myths follow from that ubiquity. Here are five of the most common.

Whole, frozen or canned corn is genetically modified. 

Today, more than 90 percent of the soybeans, corn, cotton and canola grown in the United States is produced from genetically engineered seeds. That’s led some to believe that the corn we throw on the grill and toss with black beans has endured similar DNA tinkering. The website GMO Answers, for example, claims that sweet corn is one of the “few GMO crops in the grocery store [that is] available as whole produce.” And Treehugger uses a picture of corn to illustrate its article “11 GM foods commonly found in grocery stores.” 

As it happens, though, almost all genetically modified corn is field corn, not sold in the neighborhood market. Roughly 40 percent of this is processed into ethanol for engine fuel, about as much is used for livestock feed, and the rest is used in processed foods. 

Only about 1 percent of the corn grown in the United States is sweet corn — the stuff we eat as canned or frozen niblets and butter-slathered fresh ears — and of that, most is not genetically modified. Bayer-Monsanto and Syngenta both make a GMO sweet corn, but farmers have been reluctant to grow it. According to Bill Tracy, an agronomy professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, none of the canned or frozen corn at the grocery store is GMO. (Because labeling standards established by the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law aren’t compulsory until January 2022, stores don’t have to indicate which corn on the cob is GMO.) As of 2018, only about 10 percent of the sweet-corn acreage planted in the United States and Canada was genetically modified.

You can get by without corn. 

Many low-carb diets, from keto to paleo, strongly discourage the consumption of grains such as corn. An Atkins diet guide suggests cutting it out — as if that’s simple to do — since it “can hurt your keto progress,” and even mainstream health gurus like Dr. Oz have flip-flopped on whether corn has a place in the human diet. 

You can eschew ears of corn and bowls of cornflakes, but corn is in an astounding range of products, from explosives to embalming fluid, according to Betty Fussell’s 2004 book, “The Story of Corn.” And its ubiquity has only grown. “There are more consumer packaged goods than ever, thousands more, and these are mostly made from corn and corn derivatives, wheat, soy, and some source of oil and some source of sugar (often corn),” says David Katz, founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. In “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Michael Pollan holds up the chicken nugget as Exhibit A of the grain’s omnipresence, arguing that “what chicken it contains consists of corn” (because of the chickens’ corn-based diet), as does “the modified corn starch that glues the thing together, the corn flour in the batter that coats it, and the corn oil in which it gets fried.”

Consumers have to make a tremendous, studious effort to locate products in which no corn of any kind is involved anywhere in the production process.

Corn is a bad source of nutrients. 

Corn is a carbohydrate, high in starch, with an above average glycemic index and a poor ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids. Its consumption has been linked to weight gain. That’s led outlets such as Paleo Flourish to declare that it “has very little nutritional value, like most grains.” Some diet gurus have begun to warn consumers about the dangers of lectins, a family of proteins prevalent in grains like corn that can supposedly “stimulate weight gain,” among other things.

But sweet corn is also an excellent source of a number of vitamins, phytonutrients and minerals, including folate, niacin, thiamine, vitamin C, lutein and zeaxanthin, as well as a good source of dietary fiber, iron, magnesium, potassium and zinc, according to Tracy. (He cautions that corn with only white kernels lacks carotenoids, important for eye health.)

Government subsidies unduly favor corn and are wasteful. 

Grains are more heavily subsidized than fruits and vegetables, making them cheaper and thus more prevalent in our diet. U.S. farmers received $390.9 billion in subsidies between 1995 and 2019, and corn was the top beneficiary at $113.9 billion. Many people think that money is a waste, and an argument has raged about whether excessive corn subsidies can be linked to rising obesity numbers. The “out-of-control farm-handout system” has been a conservative rallying cry for some time, and progressives often see it as “corporate welfare by another name,” noting that subsidy money routinely favors affluent, white farmers. 

Yet American corn farmers really are imperiled. U.S. farm income fell by almost a third from 2013 to 2018 — and corn farmers, along with dairy farmers, have the most Chapter 12 bankruptcies. Farmers’ share of the country’s gross domestic product is hovering at 0.4 percent, the lowest on record. On top of that, much of the Corn Belt had an unprecedentedly rough winter and wet spring this year, postponing and in many cases preventing planting altogether. Futures prices have fallen, yields are uncertain, exports are weak. Meanwhile, last year’s $12 billion trade relief package didn’t benefit corn farmers much, with large-scale soy farms and pork producers reaping much of the bailout. 

Biofuels derived from corn can help the environment. 

Ethanol, made by fermenting sugars from corn or sugar cane, contains oxygen that enables a car’s engine to burn fuel more efficiently. It was heralded as the “fuel of the future” by Henry Ford in 1925 — a fuel that would be environmentally friendly and accessible, promote engine life, improve performance, and be far cheaper than gasoline. More recent boosters have been bullish about its place in the American economy. And, as advocates hoped, a recent Agriculture Department study finds that greenhouse gas emissions from corn ethanol are about 39 percent lower than those from gasoline.

It’s the renewable part that is a little thorny. Corn can be grown year after year, and it serves to sequester carbon from the air, which is all well and good. But there are other considerations. “If you factor in that it may take as much or more energy to produce ethanol as it yields and [consider] the environmental damage of raising millions of acres of corn for ethanol,” wrote Mark Bittman, editor in chief of Heated, an online food platform by Medium, in a recent email, “I do not believe that you’re achieving greenhouse gas reductions.” 

There’s a growing consensus among scientists that conventional cornstarch ethanol has a smaller potential to reduce greenhouse gases than advanced biofuels made from animal fats, recycled grease, vegetable oils and algae. The ethanol mandate serves mostly to subsidize corn farmers.

Twitter: @lreiley

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