A Hamburger Today

My Week Without Corn

"Thank God there's no corn in champagne."

sadcorn.pngWhy would anyone give up corn for a week? And how hard could it possibly be to do so?

Unless you work in the corn industry, or you’re allergic to the stuff, it’s hard to grasp just how much of what we eat is made from corn. Corn bread, corn tortillas, fresh summer corn—those are the obvious starters. But then there’s cornmeal and cornstarch and corn oil and corn syrup, corn as a thickener or a sweetener or a bulker-upper or just an invisible additive. The Ontario Corn Producer’s Association estimates that, of the 10,000 products that line the shelves of an average grocery store, more than 2,500 of them contain corn. That’s an awful lot.

“But what’s wrong with corn?” you might ask.

In a sense, nothing. In its whole form, corn is a cheap, filling source of starch and vitamins, and its obvious versatility makes it an important culinary staple. As it has been, for thousands of years. But only the tiniest fraction of our corn supply ends up boiled and buttered, or even converted to cornmeal. Given current farm bills and modern commodity agriculture, large-scale corn producers receive government subsidies—to the tune of 4 billion dollars a year—making the crop ludicrously (and, in a sense, artificially) cheap.

That creates the incentive to sell, sell, sell, in every possible form. And since we can only eat so much corn on the cob, that means conjuring all sorts of corn-based derivatives. So we end up with corn processed beyond recognition, into forms that eliminate virtually all of its nutritional content.

Like corn syrup—what Mark Bittman calls “the most useless form of calories ever created.” Our consumption of corn syrup has increased more than 1000% between 1970 and 1990, according to Nina Planck, author of Real Food. Its sudden debut into the American diet corresponds almost exactly to a dramatic climb in obesity rates. (Correlation, of course, does not necessarily imply causation. But it’s hard not to raise an eyebrow.) And other corn derivatives tend to be similarly empty calories, adding “sweet” or “substance” without flavor or vitamins.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not advocating a ban on corn, or suggesting that corn is somehow the enemy. Still, the first step to healthful eating—for ourselves, for our society, and for our environment—is to understand just what we put in our mouths. And I have a feeling that it's a lot more corn than we realize.

So, for one week, I will swear off all products that include corn. My gut tells me it won’t be that hard; I’m not a McDonald’s and Doritos kind of girl. But plenty of staple foods are off the menu. My seven days without corn, after the jump.

Day One: Everything Has Corn!

I rolled out of bed with a grumbling stomach, but managed to read up on ingredient labels before I reached for breakfast. Oatmeal: 100% rolled oats, no problem. Fage Greek yogurt: just milk and live cultures. (Unlike many fruit yogurts, sweetened with corn syrup). And a packet of Splenda—yes, I confess, artificial sweetener—should be fine. Right?

Well, no. I’d thought of Splenda as chemically modified sugar, and the sucralose part of it is. But the stuff in those yellow packets also contains dextrose and maltodextrin, both corn derivatives. Goodbye, Splenda. I reached for the Sugar in the Raw instead.

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Not this week.

Lunchtime. I rooted around in my fridge for sandwich fixings—but my regular sandwich rolls had polydextrose, a corn derivative, and my loaf of Health Nut bread had cornmeal. No sandwich today. So I roasted some asparagus with olive oil, rosemary, salt, and pepper, and poached an egg to break on top. Tasty, but I wished I could have mopped up the extra yolk with some toast.

After an afternoon latte, I stopped at the grocery store for corn-free provisions: veggies, a fresh-baked baguette, unprocessed cheese. Packaged chicken sausages had corn products, but the ones made fresh by my butcher were all meat and spice. So dinner was sautéed broccoli in olive oil and garlic, with browned chicken sausage and a hunk of my corn-free baguette. And a glass of champagne, later that night. Thank God there's no corn in champagne.

Day Two: Fast-Food Frustration

Wanted to Eat, But Couldn't:

Cereal, sandwich bread, sandwich rolls, breakfast pastries, Starbucks breakfast sandwich, Dunkin' Donuts sandwich, chicken sausage, frozen yogurt, Splenda, chocolate-covered pretzels, Toaster Strudel, mochi ice cream snacks, cheese, anything from Chick-fil-A, pizza, tomato sauce.

Cloudy and cool, it was an oatmeal kind of morning. (Good thing I stick to the plain stuff—some flavored packets definitely count corn syrup among the ingredients.) Then a cappuccino, no Splenda.

The office had a little Chick-fil-A party, and I considered partaking, but after reading the ingredients posted online, I realized that nothing passed the no-corn test: corn syrup in the buns, corn products in the chicken seasoning, corn in even the biscuits and salads. No Chick-fil-A for me. So lunch was leftovers—extra chicken sausage, chopped up and browned with onions, with a fried egg on top and a little baguette.

Dinner worked out well, too—broccoli grabbed from the fruit cart on my corner, sautéed with olive oil, garlic, and a few frozen shrimp. And a bowl of oatmeal as a midnight snack. (Yes, I often have double-oatmeal days.)

I missed the office indulgence, but reading the Chick-fil-A menu was a real eye-opener. Not a single item was free of added corn? I’d thought at least the grilled chicken might end up okay.

Day Three: Corn-Free Convenience

20090723pretz.jpgWhen I’m rushing out the door in the morning, I sometimes stop by Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts for a breakfast sandwich. But not this week; a quick look at the ingredients showed cornstarch, corn syrup, and all sorts of -dextrose derivatives. Is there no convenient food for the corn-free? I almost took for granted that my other breakfast standby, Luna Bars, would have corn somewhere in their nine thousand ingredients. But miraculously, no corn in sight!

I brought a corn-free baguette and unprocessed cheese sandwich for lunch, carefully avoiding the office nibbles. Later that afternoon, I found that our stash of Kind Bars didn’t have corn, either, and had one for a pick-me-up. When Tressa asked us to all join in on a ginger beer tasting, I first declined—wouldn’t all non-diet sodas have corn syrup? Much to my surprise, every single one was sweetened with either cane sugar or honey. Props to ginger beer.

I grilled chicken for dinner, and had a few of my brother’s Trader Joe’s gnocchi—another frozen meal surprisingly free of corn products.

But when a dessert craving hit around midnight, there was nothing in my kitchen to be had. My roommate’s ice cream, Toaster Strudel, chocolate-covered pretzels—all out. I couldn’t even make toast, since both the bread and jam were off-limits. I considered a visit to Yogurtland, but every single flavor had corn syrup, or “corn sweetener” (a new one to me). I settled with Greek yogurt, which may have been healthier, but definitely didn’t hit the spot.

Day Four: Passing on the Popcorn

Wanted to Eat, And Surprised That I Could:

Luna Bars, Trader Joe’s gnocchi, Vitamin Water, super-synthetic soft serve, ginger beer.

After a trip to the gym, I passed by my favorite coffee shop. I thought about seeing if any of the breakfast pastries were corn-free, but I didn’t want to be That Girl holding up the line with her nutrition questions. I grabbed a Vitamin Water and Luna Bar instead.

I met friends for a movie—needless to say, no popcorn—and headed to an Israeli restaurant for dinner. Heavy on the whole grains, olive oil, and grilled meats, there was nothing I couldn’t eat but the kernels of canned corn in a side salad. Some cuisines are much better for this week than others.

Day Five: Sweet Surprises

20090723tastid.jpg

So fake. But so corn-free.

Veggie-scrambled eggs for a late breakfast. By the afternoon, I was craving something icy and sweet. I passed by Tasti-D clone The Lite Choice, figuring that there wasn’t a chance their products were corn-free; the low-cal soft-serve seemed the very definition of “artificial.” But I grabbed an ingredient pamphlet, and lo and behold—no corn! Guar gum and carrageenan, yes, but those are derived from kelp. Feeling kind of like I was cheating—but kind of like I’d just won a huge victory—I grabbed a cup to go.

Dinner was Mediterranean food again, pitas and eggplant and lamb, no corn in sight.

Day Six: Smooth Sailing

More oatmeal; I’m a creature of habit. I’m getting used to life without Splenda. Just the slightest sprinkle of Sugar in the Raw is now all the sweetness I need.

A Mark Bittman-style broccoli frittata did double duty for lunch and dinner, with a few non-corn nibbles in between: an olive oil cookie Erin brought back from Greece, a coffee ice cream taste test (all sugar-sweetened).

After dinner, my roommate offered me a mochi-covered ice cream ball, which I sadly declined—corn syrup. I went to bed with my mochi craving unsatisfied.

Day Seven: No Sweetened Sauce

Additive-free cappuccino, sweetener-free yogurt. Lunch was a kind of shakshuka—basically a tomato stew with eggs cracked on top. To make this dish quickly, I usually start with a base of jarred tomato sauce, but it was sweetened with corn syrup. So I reached for canned San Marzano tomatoes instead. A few more minutes and a few more ingredients, but the result was far better. And for dinner, I finished off the chicken sausage.

Seven days, corn free! I thought about downing a corn-syrupy soda at the stroke of midnight. But the idea didn't really appeal.

Lessons Learned

In truth, I ate very well this week. Once I learned to avoid processed foods, even innocuous-seeming items such as "healthy" sandwich bread and pre-made tomato sauce, living corn-free was a breeze.

But as the week went on, a realization sunk in. Though I was eating no corn, my eating habits were still largely corn-based. That milk I was drinking? Definitely came from corn-eating cows. The chickens in my sausage chowed on corn-based feed, and their egg-laying sisters were fed with corn as well. And that contributed to our society's massive overproduction just as surely as corn syrup.

So next week, I'm stepping it up. All the same limitations of this week, except that corn-fed animal products are off the menu, too. How much harder will that be? Check back next week to find out.

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