The love affair between corn growers and fast-food chains -- long asserted, but never proven, by food activists and writers such as Michael Pollan, the bestselling writer who has slammed North America's obsession with fast food in his books In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma -- was given scientific backing with the publication of a paper that showed that corn is implicated in the production of nearly everything sold at fast-food counters in America.
"Corn occupies a really special role in what I've been calling American agro-economics," says Jahren, who is a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Jahren, trained in soil and plant chemistry, may seem an odd candidate to spend her time analyzing Burger King patties. However, she realized her expertise in the carbon signatures of plants gave her an advantage in solving a problem nutritionists hadn't yet been able to crack -- how much corn is in fast food.
The study, published in the journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, involved visiting the U.S.'s top three chains -- McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's -- in several geographic locations around the country and taking samples of hundreds of burgers, chicken sandwiches and fries. By looking for the carbon signature for zea mays -- it has two enzymes instead of one, making it unusually conspicuous -- Jahren was able to determine that, of hundreds, only 12 servings of beef and none of chicken were derived from animals that had a food source other than corn. Wendy's fries were also found to be deep-fried in corn oil.
Staggeringly, that meant that two animals that have not evolved to eat corn at all live exclusively on it.
Corn fattens up cows prior to slaughter at a higher rate than grass, their natural diet, but it also causes them a number of health problems. Cows' stomachs in particular do not react well to corn -- it makes them susceptible to the deadly bacteria E. coli -- so their feed has to be spiked with antibiotics to prevent them from getting sick.
"Our team worked for years to try to get this information from the fast-food outlets themselves," Jahren explains. However, her team's attempts were stymied by fast-food websites that said only that their patties were made with "the finest cuts of meat," 1-800 numbers went nowhere, and researchers were hung up on. When provided, ingredient lists were not helpful.
"I'm a chemist, and I can't make it though these information lists," she says.
"They're very sloppy. Organic sweeteners, fruit sweeteners, corn syrup, vegetable syrup, fructose, glucose -- there are a million different ways to say a million different things and nothing.
"Why do you need sophisticated atomic chemistry to find out what's in your food?"
Not knowing what is in our fast-food combos certainly makes it easier to scarf them down. Corn-fed beef has been found to have higher levels of saturated fats than grass-fed beef.
Worse is high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which studies have shown we metabolize differently than other sugars, making it bad for us to eat in large quantities. HFCS happens to be the prime sweetener used by soft-drink and snack manufacturers in North America.
It seems counter-intuitive, but corn is not a simple crop to grow. It requires high levels of pesticide and nitrogen fertilizer, both of which are highly unsustainable because they are made from oil. Pesticides flow from cornfields into rivers and groundwater, taking a toll on marine life and drinking-water supplies.
One popular herbicide used on U.S. corn, Atrazine, has been shown to emasculate frogs -- it makes them produce eggs -- at concentrations as low as 0.1 part per billion.
Critics have long spoken out against the large U.S. farm subsidies they say have led to the overproduction of corn-derived products such as HFCS, animal feed and ethanol.
While Canadian corn farmers do not get a fraction of the subsidies of their counterparts to the south, corn and soy are still the biggest crops in Ontario.
Of the more than 263 million bushels of corn produced in this province this year, 55-60% of it will go to make to animal feed, 15-20% will become ethanol, and much of the rest is used to manufacture, yes, the ubiquitous corn sweeteners found in soft drinks and snacks. (The iconic, butter-smeared, sweet cobs most of us picture when we think of corn accounts for only a tiny, specialized sliver of corn production in North America.)
Most feed rations for meat grown in Ontario are corn-based, confirms Larry Cowan, a corn farmer who sits on the board of directors of the Ontario Corn Producers Association for Middlesex County.
So while Jahren's study did not include Canada, the notion that much of Ontario's fast food is made of corn is not much of a stretch.
"One has to wonder whether corn hasn't at last succeeded in domesticating us," wrote Pollan back in 2002. In the recession of 2008, it seems our dependence on zea mays to cheaply fatten our cows and chickens and sweeten our snack food can only deepen.
If stock data are any indication, fast food has already begun to rush into the gaps in our diets as we try to tighten our belts. Unlike most companies, McDonald's stock outdid expectations this quarter, boosted by a 7% jump in global sales. It has already become a tidbit of financial wisdom that McDonald's stock is "recession-proof."
From the November 24, 2008, Prepared Foods e-Flash