1. Taking the Kernel Apart: The Mill. About a fifth of the corn produced in the United States goes to “wet mill” plants owned by companies like Cargill and ADM for processing. A scientist explains the process to Pollan: the corn is separated into its botanical parts in an energy-intensive process that uses ten calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of processed food produced. The corn starch is broken down into glucose, or corn syrup—much like when you chew a cracker until it becomes sweet. By the 1970s, these plants started producing high-fructose corn syrup, a blend of glucose and an even sweeter molecule called fructose.
The connections between corn and processed food are not entirely clear because the ingredients in these foods are not, strictly speaking, corn at all. As Pollan shows, food companies use chemical processes to break down corn into its constituent parts, producing new commodities like high-fructose corn syrup. It is these products that will ultimately make their way into supermarket foods, after a long journey from the cornfield through the processing plant.
The remaining slurry of starch is fermented into alcohols like ethanol, which is used in automobile fuel. By the end of the process, nothing of the corn remains. Unlike the feedlot, there is no waste here. But this isn’t a “natural” ecological closed loop. Humans have adapted into “industrial eaters” who can consume all of this surplus biomass in the form of processed foods.
2. Putting It Back Together Again: Processed Foods. For most of human history, people have tried to “liberate food from nature”: to can, salt, and preserve foods so that they could be eaten out of season. Processed foods are thus the natural culmination of a long history.
Although processed foods are far from “natural,” Pollan suggests that there is something natural about the human instinct to create preservable foods that can be eaten out of season.
Two plants—corn and soybeans—provide most of the ingredients in processed foods. At the same time, paradoxically, most processed foods have a baffling number of ingredients—even if they’re all derived from the same plants. This shields food companies like General Mills from the ups and downs of farm yields. Since processed foods are “complex food systems” with many different ingredients, it’s straightforward enough for companies to substitute a scarcer ingredient with another. By making their foods from many ingredients derived from corn and soybeans, companies like General Mills also preserve much of the profit for themselves, since they create the products in their factories and brand them with their name.
For thousands of years of human agriculture, corn provided one ingredient—which was, well, corn. But in today’s industrial food system, Pollan shows, the chemical elements of corn can be broken down and recombined into seemingly endless new combinations, like corn syrup. The ability to turn a single ingredient into many ingredients is a marker of the way human intervention and new technologies have drastically changed the way people eat today.
Food companies also have to contend with the problem of consumer demand, since there’s only so much food people can eat. They need to either incentivize people to eat more, or they need to get people to pay more for the same commodities. The industry pursues both strategies by “adding value” to their products. For instance, some General Mills cereals claim to have health-enriching ingredients like vitamins. Some food companies have even gone so far as to claim that processed foods are healthier than whole foods, since they contain more ingredients and nutrients than, say, a simple apple or orange.
The industrial food system prizes efficiency, but it also has a potential waste problem. After all, farmers produce too much corn—so to solve the problem and maximize profits, food companies have to somehow incentivize people to eat more corn. This counterintuitive solution—since surely it would make more sense to simply eat less food—demonstrates the industry’s focus on profit and utility over health.