The food was the easy part. That’s the first thing I want to say about my week trying to live without corn.
During my corn-free challenge, I did have to avoid a lot of food items. Among the foods I did not eat were chicken, pork or beef unless we were assured it was grass-fed and grass-finished. I didn’t eat eggs, milk and most cheeses because they came from animals that had eaten corn.
We did not go out for our usual pleasant Sunday breakfast with my sister, which is always a festival of car rides, eggs, bacon and syrup. There was no pizza, no convenient frozen lunches, no yogurt, no ice cream. I drank my morning tea without the usual milk or Splenda. I completely shunned my office’s Friday morning breakfast in order to avoid, you know, that one glorious horn-shaped pastry, all buttery and flaky, filled with cheese and dusted with powdered sugar. It is a crazy wonderful bomb of corn in several forms. I usually limit myself to about a third of one, and man I miss it.
When it came to any processed food, I carefully studied the labels. We are great readers of labels anyway, but this was a closer level of scrutiny. Everyone knows about high-fructose corn syrup. But processed foods are delivery systems for corn—for instance, in the form of lactose, maltose, maltodextrin and sorbitol. Of course, cornstarch. Vinegar. Both regular white vinegar and malt vinegar, in the US, are usually made from corn, and both are added to numerous prepared foods (not just condiments, either—I found vinegar in the ingredient list on a “macaroni and cheese” meal in our freezer.) A bewildering array of sweeteners, too: if it is listed as fructose, glucose or invert sugar, it may well come from corn. As I noted last week, iodized salt contains corn in the form of the maltose used to bind the iodine to the salt. (This week we used kosher salt instead, but if you’ve ever seen someone with goiter you will understand that this is not a long-term strategy.) With a very few exceptions, most packaged foods were examined and rejected. It was pretty surprising sometimes. For instance, not all hummus is alike—many brands contain corn in the form of lactose,“citric acid” or other additives.
But in fact we ate very well. We had fish, sautéed in olive oil and tarragon; we had grass-fed beef; we had spicy lentil soup; I made chili using grass-fed beef; we had lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. My quest was a lot easier because it is summer and a glory of produce is appearing in markets around us right now; and also my quest was easier because, while we do work in offices, we have the time to shop (and question people in stores) and cook. When we wanted meat, we went to Butcher and Larder (on the El) and bought the lovely grass-fed hamburger I used for the chili, and Terry walked to the Mariano’s near his office for grass-fed beef steaks. (And I also want to thank Terry, who did not have to join me in this week-long experiment, but did, with great enthusiasm and insight.) For breakfast, I would have some oatmeal (without milk) or a handful of nuts and some fruit. For lunch, I would have things like fresh fruit, an avocado, a little tuna, peanut butter, some Triscuits (wheat, salt), some fruit or a salad.
Avoiding corn in food was only part of the corn-free challenge. We avoided corn in our transit too. Corn is used for the ethanol that is blended into gasoline, in the manufacture of tires and in the manufacture of the ceramics on spark plugs. We haven’t taken the car out in a week now, nor have we ridden in anyone else’s car. Because of the tire manufacture issue, I also did not use my bike. Luckily, we live in a fairly walkable neighborhood and are already accustomed to our commute to the office, which is a walk of about a mile and then a 20-minute El ride.
The combination of walking and riding the El worked well, but I can see how it could get old. Chicago is, at best, kind of convenient. On Saturday, we took care of all our errands via walking and mass transit. In terms of time, tackling the errands we needed to do this weekend probably did not take much longer than driving would have—Chicago traffic is awful on Saturdays. But there were some stores we simply did not go to because they are just a bit too far of a walk—or not aligned with other errand stops—and it was a very sunny day, and there was a great deal of trudging and schlepping. We set out full of enthusiasm, but when we got home from all of this going to and fro, I was just worn out.
But eating more mindfully and not driving the car for a week were not really bothersome. The most difficult things to give up were in the realm of personal care. Cosmetics, hygiene products, cleaning products, medications. How clean did I want to be? And how groomed? Shampoo has corn derivatives in several forms—for instance, decyl glucoside, a gentle surfactant that even turns up in baby shampoo. My favorite shampoo has three corn derivatives. Sunblock, face powder, deodorant, eye shadows, lipstick: corn, corn, corn, corn, corn. I can see why a corn product would be in my face powder, but why does my hair conditioner contain caramel?
I don’t particularly wear a lot of makeup, so the corn in lipstick, eye pencils and eye liners and blush did not affect the challenge. But where I really started to fall off the wagon was with the shampoo and mascara, because vanity (and also, hygiene). My first failure to meet the challenge came with bathing. Yes, technically I could have gone a week without, say, a shampoo. But seriously, a week without washing my hair? No one wants to see that—no one. I succeeded in not putting on mascara for several days, but that ultimately made me more self conscious and nervous than heck. This was my second failure to meet the challenge. My personal grooming failed the corn-free challenge (but my colleagues and Terry were the real winners here).
The next failure was with medications. Many pharmaceuticals, from aspirin to xanax, use corn starch as a binder and filler, and many also include other corn derivatives. Zein, the chemical that makes time released medications happen, is made from corn. I take one prescription drug, and I kept taking it.
I also could not meet the corn-free challenge in a more elemental way. I came home on Monday night, and when I walked into the apartment, I felt like a complete idiot. Because just coming home, I was using corn. It is in the drywall, in the paint on the wall, in the cat food that our small associates were eagerly expecting. It’s in the newspaper I picked up on the way home, in the glue on the flaps of the envelopes in the mailbox, in the batteries in the remote control and the flashlight. Which brings me to my second point: I really could not cut corn entirely out of my life, even if I were to give up mascara and medicines and wash my hair with, I don’t know, beach sand. And you can’t give it up either. The only way we’d be able to avoid it would be to move to 1958.
And this is the third thing I want to say. As a recent Stanford University study noted, in the first round of global warming, farmers in North America got a pass. In the rest of the world, climate change has been pushing down crop yields and pushing up prices for decades. But North America has been lucky. This year, with the failure of the corn crop, we see our luck ending.
Corn is in our daily life, at the cellular level. When the planet is too hot and dry for us to grow it, what will replace it? More importantly, in a hotter, drier world, should we use arable land and scarce water to power our cars, paint our faces?
We can decide to step away from the corn, and start finding alternatives now, or we can wait and have the decision made for us, by a hotter, drier, hungrier world.
Quick note: You can read last week’s post about the corn-free challenge here.