Are All Meat-Eaters Children of the Corn?

by Bill Chameides | November 18th, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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A new study traces our fast-food meat back to, well, corn, and from all angles, it looks like we have too much corn in our diet.

For decades, big companies have been consuming others until only a few are left. This Pac Man-like game has been especially true of agriculture where now a handful of large corporations control nearly every aspect of our food production [pdf]. A new study explores this situation vis-a-vis our fast-food addiction.

Corn is highly prevalent in our diet. As I wrote back in April, “You’re likely to be eating it even if you don’t know it. Chug a Coke, chomp on a chicken nugget, bite into a burger, and most likely you’re ingesting processed corn.” Now two scientists from the University of Hawaii, Hope Jahren (a former colleague of mine from Georgia Tech) and Rebecca Kraft have used an innovative approach based on carbon and nitrogen isotopes to demonstrate just how pervasive this American food reality is.

A Review of Isotopes

For starters, let’s review what an isotope is. An atom’s center, or nucleus, is made up of protons and neutrons. The number of protons determines the kind of atom or element it is. For example, all atoms with 6 protons are carbon. But carbon can have different numbers of neutrons. Carbon-12, which contains 6 neutrons and 6 protons, is the most common carbon atom. There’s also carbon-13 and carbon-14. These are all carbon isotopes, meaning they all have 6 protons but different numbers of neutrons.

Nitrogen has 7 protons. Its most common form is nitrogen-14, but other isotopes — namely, nitrogen-15 and nitrogen-16 — also exist. How many of these isotopes are in a sample determine its carbon and nitrogen isotopic signature.

Isotopic Signatures of Animal Feed Hold Clues to What’s in Our Food

As animals grow, their tissue retains the isotopic signatures of their feed. By extension, the meat we eat also has these isotopic signatures. Because different grains and grasses that animals eat contain different but known carbon and nitrogen signatures, when we measure these in our meat, we can determine what the animals ate before they were produced for meat.

Jahren and Kraft took this basic idea and ran with it. By combining the carbon and nitrogen isotopic signatures, the authors were able to show:

  • how much fertilizer was used to produce the grains fed to the livestock,
  • whether the animal was confined, and
  • the type of feed used.

When It Comes to Our Fast-Food Meat, Too Much Corn Leading to Too Many Problems

Jahren and Kraft’s findings tell the story of industrialized farming’s end game. In at least the last few weeks of their lives, our meat-producing animals are:

  • mostly confined and
  • fed one grain — heavily fertilized corn.

Of the more than 320 servings of beef and chicken the researchers sampled at three leading fast-food chains from across the country, they found only 12 servings of beef that could have been fed anything other than corn. So if you’re eating fast food, you’re eating corn. Not always a great food choice. Corn has been implicated in our epidemic of obesity and related health problems such as heart disease (see here and here). Additionally, growing corn has been linked to a variety of environmental problems.

Cheap fast food brings in $100 billion in profits annually. With the economy in the tank, it’s not a stretch to see how those dollars will increase as folks living on the edge try to cope. If you think that’s depressing, stay tuned for Friday’s post, which will look at the life of the industrial turkey. We’ll also check out a more sustainable choice  – just in time for Thanksgiving, of course. Gobble gobble.

filed under: agriculture, animals, faculty, food, health

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