CORNY [and Soybean] World 



THE  PROCESSING  PLANT:   MAKING   COMPLEX  FOODS 


by  Michael  Pollan


.......Even after people had learned the rudiments of preserving food, however, the dream of liberating food from nature continued to flourish— indeed, to expand in ambition and confidence. In the third age of food processing, which begins with the end ofWorldWar II, merely preserving the fruits of nature was deemed too modest: The goal now was to improve on nature. The twentieth-century prestige of technology and convenience combined with advances in marketing to push aside butter to make shelf space for margarine, replace fruit juice with juice drinks and then entirely juice-free drinks like Tang, cheese with Cheez Whiz, and whipped cream with Cool Whip.

Corn, a species that had been a modest beneficiary of the first two ages of food processing (having taken well to the can and the freezer), really came into its own during the third. You would never know it without reading the ingredient label (a literary genre unknown until the third age), but corn is the key constituent of all four of these processed foods. Along with the soybean, its rotational partner in the field, corn has done more than any other species to help the food industry realize the dream of freeing food from nature's limitations and seducing the omnivore into eating more of a single plant than anyone would ever have thought possible......

The longer the ingredient label on a food, the more fractions of corn and soybeans you will find in it. They supply the essential building blocks, and from those two plants (plus a handful of synthetic additives) a food scientist can construct just about any processed food he or she can dream up......


The growth of the American food industry will always bump up against this troublesome biological fact: Try as we might, each of us can eat only about fifteen hundred pounds of food a year. Unlike many other products—CDs, say, or shoes—there's a natural limit to how much food we can each consume without exploding. What this means for the food industry is that its natural rate of growth is somewhere around 1 percent per year—1 percent being the annual growth rate of the American population. The problem is that Wall Street won't tolerate such an anemic rate of growth.


This leaves companies like General Mills and McDonald's with two options if they hope to grow faster than the population: figure out how to get people to spend more money for the same three-quarters of a ton of food, or entice them to actually eat more than that. The two strategies are not mutually exclusive, of course, and the food industry energetically pursues them both at the same time. Which is good news indeed for the hero of our story, for it happens that turning cheap corn into complex food systems is an excellent way to achieve both goals.....


In fact, there are lots of good reasons to complicate your product— or, as the industry prefers to say, to "add value" to it. Processing food can add months, even years, to its shelf life, allowing you to market globally. Complicating your product also allows you to capture more of the money a consumer spends on food. Of a dollar spent on a whole food such as eggs, $0.40 finds its way back to the farmer. By comparison, George Naylor will see only $0.04 of every dollar spent on corn sweeteners; ADM and Coca-Cola and General Mills capture most of the rest. (Every farmer I've ever met eventually gets around to telling the story about the food industry executive who declared, "There's money to be made in food, unless you're trying to grow it.") When Tyson food scientists devised the chicken nugget in 1983, a cheap bulk commodity— chicken—overnight became a high-value-added product, and most of the money Americans spend on chicken moved from the farmer's pocket to the processor's.

As Tyson understood, you want to be selling something more than a commodity, something more like a service: novelty, convenience, status, fortification, lately even medicine. The problem is, a value-added product made from a cheap commodity can itself become a commodity, so cheap and abundant are the raw materials. That lesson runs straight through the history of a company like General Mills, which started out in 1926 as a mill selling whole wheat flour: ground wheat. When that product became a cheap commodity, the company kept ahead of the competition by processing the grain a bit more, creating bleached and then "enriched" flour. Now they were adding value, selling not just wheat but an idea of purity and health, too. In time, however, even enriched white flour became a commodity, so General Mills took another step away from nature—from the farm and the plants in question—by inventing cake mixes and sweetened breakfast cereals. Now they were selling convenience, with a side of grain and corn sweetener, and today they're beginning to sell cereals that sound an awful lot like medicines. And so it goes, the rushing stream of ever cheaper agricultural commodities driving food companies to figure out new and ever more elaborate ways to add value and so induce us to buy more......


The news of TreeTop's breakthrough came in a recent Food Technology trend story tided "Getting More Fruits and Vegetables into Food." I had thought fruits and vegetables were already foods, and so didn't need to be gotten into them, but I guess that just shows I'm stuck in the food past. Evidently we're moving into the fourth age of food processing, in which the processed food will be infinitely better (i.e., contain more of whatever science has determined to be the good stuff) than the whole foods on which they're based. The food industry has gazed upon nature and found it wanting—and has gotten to work improving it......



Resistant starch, the last novelty on that list of ingredients, has the corn refiners particularly excited today. They've figured out how to tease a new starch from corn that is virtually indigestible. You would not think this is a particularly good thing for a food to be, unless of course your goal is to somehow get around the biological limit on how much each of us can eat in a year. Since the body can't break down resistant starch, it slips through the digestive tract without ever turning into calories of glucose—a particular boon, we're told, for diabetics. When fake sugars and fake fats are joined by fake starches, the food industry will at long last have overcome the dilemma of the fixed stomach: whole meals you can eat as often or as much of as you like, since this food will leave no trace. Meet the ultimate—the utterly elastic!— industrial eater.

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