Not long ago, a reader wrote in with an interesting response to one of my many articles condemning industrially grown corn.

“When sweet corn appears at the farmers’ market next summer, can I buy
it in good conscience?” she wanted to know. “Or is it bad for me and
bad for the land?”

I can see why she might be confused. Even as U.S. farmers prepare for
what will almost certainly be the largest concentrated corn harvest in
world history, criticism has rained down like fertilizer on an Iowa
corn patch. Michael Pollan placed corn at the center of what he called “our national eating disorder” in his best-selling Omnivore’s Dilemma. I’ve personally joined the chorus tying corn to everything from the obesity epidemic to the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, and to the “biggest greenwash ever,” ethanol.

Next thing you know, I’ll be trying to link corn to the calamities unfolding in Iraq. Wait — someone already has. Global warming? Ditto.

Thus corn is, in some sense, bad —
evil, even. But before
we shuffle this common crop into the ash heap of history — where it
will reside next to cigarette smoking and other indecencies — it might
be time to rethink the process by which we embrace and then demonize
food and other substances we ingest.

I’ve identified an insidious pattern in U.S. food culture: Take a
perfectly wonderful foodstuff, industrialize its production and strip
it of most nutrients, sell it in titanic quantities, create a health
scare — and then demonize it. It’s the process through which what’s
good for you becomes

Beyond Good and Evil

Consider the case of butter. When I was a kid in the 1970s, a
near-hysteria to ban butter from home kitchens held sway. Butter raised
cholesterol, the logic went, and thus caused heart disease. Better to
slather your toast with margarine — vegetable oil contrived to remain
solid at room temperature by an industrial process called “partial
hydrogenation.” Obeying the best health information available to them,
my parents stuck mainly to margarine, backsliding to the natural
product only occasionally.

Of course, the demonization of butter wasn’t completely irrational. I
remember how copiously my grandparents used butter. It went on
everything: bologna was fried in it, and then placed between two
well-buttered slices of white bread. I don’t recall lettuce or any
other vegetables going on those sandwiches; a slice of “American
cheese” was more likely. They even buttered Pop-Tarts! Meanwhile, dairy
operations were just beginning to confine lactating cows in feedlots
en masse
and replace grass-based diets with grain, a feeding strategy we now
know reduces the quality of the fat contained in dairy products.

At the time, heart-disease rates were surging. But rather than advising
people to moderate butter consumption or evaluating these new methods
of dairy production, the U.S. medical establishment urged consumers to
switch to a synthetic substitute that the food industry was only too
happy to produce.

With margarine, you could slather your toast with fat guilt-free. But
no one, including my grandparents, did themselves a favor by switching
to partially hydrogenated fat — one foodstuff that may truly qualify
as demonic.
Not surprisingly, by the 1980s, when it became clear that the switch to
margarine wasn’t curtailing heart-disease rates, a backlash against fat
itself gained force.

This culminated in one of the most ignominious phases of U.S. culinary
history: the “low-fat” craze. And once again, industrial food was there
to help.

Up and down the supermarket aisle, food processors hawked “low-fat”
versions of everything they could think of: pudding and cake and potato
chips and breakfast cereal. Remember low-fat ice cream? I can even
recall seeing the phrase “fat-free” screaming from a can of frozen,
concentrated orange juice — as if oranges had fat anyway.

The low-fat fad may mark the last instance when consumers really
that food-processing conglomerates could actually improve the raw food
that grows from the dirt. For me, the trend peaked when I found a jar
of something called “fat-free guacamole” in my mother’s fridge in the
early 1990s. Guys in white lab coats, employed by who knows what
industrial-food titan, had “perfected” the avocado by stripping it of
fat. Never mind that the very fat they trashed is precisely what makes
avocados an incredibly delicious and health-giving food.

False Choices

My mother, to her credit, has long since rejected “low-fat” processed
garbage. Indeed, there’s a growing understanding that the food industry
offers mostly false choices: between, say, cheap, nutritionally suspect
butter from corn-stuffed cows, and equal amounts of heart-wrecking
butter-like “spread.” Our butter-margarine journey is just one example
of such choices — even beer and cigarettes, justly demonized in the
form of Miller Lite and Marlboro, started out as relatively benign
agricultural products before industry got to them.

Now people are relearning a lesson that’s been largely forgotten since
the post-war explosion of industrial food: that quality matters — and
that food quality derives from growing practices. Butter made from the
milk of grass-fed cows, for instance, is fundamentally different from
the stuff churned out in vast quantities by the mega-dairy operations.

Moreover, the idea that moderation trumps substitution with synthetic
knockoffs is gaining traction. Even the most pristinely produced butter
will likely cause harm if you add a thick layer to everything you eat.
But a bit of well-made butter spread on freshly baked bread, or baked
into biscuits for a weekend treat — those are sublime experiences that
hardly threaten health.

The key is respect. Butter is a powerful, nutritionally dense food, and
needs to be treated as such. Which brings us back to corn.

Widely regarded as one of the great triumphs in the history of plant
domestication, corn nourished the thriving cultures of Mesoamerica for
millennia. Even today, despite contamination
from genetically modified U.S. seeds, Mexico harbors a dizzying variety
of corn types. Its citizens who follow a traditional diet, based on
flavorful varieties of whole corn processed into tortillas using an
ancient method, remain significantly healthier than other Mexicans who embrace a U.S.-style diet.

So we can’t blame Mexico’s “food of the gods” for our surging obesity,
our damaged farmland, or our troubled gulf waters. Our problem doesn’t
stem from corn, but rather the abusive way we grow it, process it, and
put it into nearly everything on our supermarket shelves. When they’re
selling corn on the cob at the farmers’ market this summer, embrace it.
You can be sure it’s a different variety from the mass-produced stuff
— and bred for flavor, not ease of processing.

¡ Viva el maíz ! May it survive the U.S. food system’s deadening embrace.

Got a question about where your last supper came from?
Fork it over.

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Grist contributing writer Tom Philpott farms and cooks at Maverick Farms, a sustainable-agriculture nonprofit and small farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.