Corn: the good, the bad, and what to do

Normally when I blog about food and farm issues, I stick to dairy. It’s what I know best, and I feel like I have a pretty direct knowledge base on everything I talk about.

It’s not that I don’t know about crops or even other livestock, but I just work most closely with calves and cows on a day-to-day basis.

However, when I get a reader request for a post, I will always do my best to oblige! Heidi @ Run (and ride) around aroo
suggested I give a farmer’s perspective on corn.

She’s read things recently that make her question whether corn is safe to include in her diet. (And believe me, corn ingredients are in a lot of foods.) Some sources even suggest corn is an evil crop that’s fundamentally ruining our society.

While I certainly don’t take an extremist point of view, it is true that America is growing more and more corn.

First, I thought we should look at the basics. According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture corn is the most widely grown grain in the U.S. with over 80 million acres planted annually. About 20% of this crop is exported, making us a major player in the world market.

The majority of corn staying in the U.S. is used for livestock feed, but it is also made into a variety of food-grade sweeteners and ingredients, corn oil, and even ethanol fuel.

Maybe you knew most of that already, and you want me to get on with the controversial stuff?

Okay.

So we’ve all read or heard that HFCS is terrible for us, that we should avoid GMOs (much of US corn is GMO), and we should choose grass-fed (as opposed to corn-fed) meat.

How much of this is fact and how much is opinion or even myth?

I’m NOT an expert, but hopefully this little Q & A helps.

Corn syrups, just how bad are they?

According to the Mayo Clinic website, they’re about the same as any other added sugar. I think this quote from the article sums it up nicely… “there is insufficient evidence to say that high fructose corn syrup is less healthy than other types of added sweeteners.”

Does this mean that I’m encouraging you to eat more HFCS?

Certainly not.

I agree with the article that we need to try and limit our intake of added sugars from any source to a reasonable level. I love sweets so this can be challenging!

The real message to me is you don’t really need to replace the corn syrup sweetened products in your diet with cane sugar or beet sugar or whatever sugar. Focusing on less added sugar overall should be your actual goal.

As far as eating GMO corn goes, I don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Just see my post on Why I Like GMOs.

What about feeding corn to livestock? Isn’t corn-fed meat bad?

This question has two facets that I see, so I’ll try to tackle them one at a time.

The first argument seems to be that “cows aren’t meant to eat corn!”

To this I say, “says who?”

Honestly.

We feed our cows a balanced ration of dried alfalfa and grasses (hay), corn silage (the whole corn plant: leaves, stems, and kernels), plus other forages and needed vitamins and minerals.

We work with animal nutrition experts (think masters or even PhD degrees) and we all have a goal of keeping cows healthy, well cared for, and producing high quality milk.

Besides, cows love corn. Some will sort through the feed looking for those tasty kernels. On rare occasions a cow will sort out enough corn to give herself an upset stomach.

The simple explanation is that too much corn, without enough hay or silage, can do this.

A cow’s four stomachs and the microbes inside her stomach require a delicate balance to be happy. I asked my husband how to better explain this, and he just looked at me and said, “Feeding cows can be one of the most complicated things in the world.”

So, I’ll try give an example of how this may happen to people. Perhaps people I know. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Say I love fresh pineapple. And I just so happen to eat over half of a fresh sliced pineapple in one sitting. My stomach begins to protest in short order.

Yeah, I’ve may have done this…

Pineapple is good for me, and it’s probably fine to eat everyday if I want. But, too much fresh pineapple when I’m not used to it can give me stomach troubles.

Sort of the same thing can hold true for cows.

Another concern about corn seems to be that it’s just a quick way to fatten animals up.

Let’s think about dairy cows. Our goal isn’t to fatten them up, but to give them balanced, healthy nutrition so they can lead healthy and productive lives.

Not every dairy feeds corn either. Here in the Midwest it’s local and available. Some farms use other plant ingredients for feed based on what makes sense for them. Corn is not the only answer for livestock feed, but I think it can work well for many farms.

Animals raised specifically for meat, like hogs, chickens, or beef cattle, also eat a lot of corn. But those farmers too want to raise healthy animals. If corn was unsuitable as a feed we simply could not and would not use it.

The second side of the corn-fed question is the nutrition of the meat. I’ve heard and read that grass fed meats are more nutritious and contain more omega 3’s than corn fed.

I googled around for awhile on the omega 3 claim, and I came away with this basic idea.

First, that the omega 3 difference is negligible. It may be a real difference, but it’s tiny. Beef, for example, is not really a good source of omega 3s. You may be getting trace amounts more from grass-fed, but you are MUCH better off eating fish or taking a supplement.

Next, the fat question. I’m finding mixed data on whether grass-fed is always leaner than corn-fed. Certainly the overall grass-fed animal contains less fat. But,

Here’s something else I know:

If you want lean meat, you should choose leaner cuts. Ribeye will always be higher in fat than a flank steak.

The cut of meat you pick is going to effect the nutrition profile more than the grass-fed label.

For me, I like enough fat in my meat that it doesn’t dry out (because I’m not a great cook…) I usually get to experiment with all cuts though, because we eat a lot of our own meat.

And, flavor. Yes, I do think different feeds make the meat taste different. Here in America more of us are used to the taste of corn-fed beef. I think it has a richer flavor, and it’s generally more juicy.

Grass-fed tends to have a slight game flavor, and it can be drier. It’s certainly not bad, but I can usually tell the difference.

I think both grass-fed and corn-fed are quality products; it just depends on your preference. And if you don’t like or eat meat, than this issue is rather irrelevant for you.

Enough about the nutrition. I’m concerned about the diseases, obesity, even cancer, that may be linked to corn consumption. What do you have to say about that?

My thoughts?

Maybe it is corn. Or soy. Or trans fats.

Maybe it’s our exposure to more pollution.

What about our sedentary lifestyle precipitated by sitting on chairs all day in front of computers.

Maybe science and modern medicine, as they are able to find and diagnose more diseases, and earlier, than ever before.

Maybe it’s a combination of more factors than I could possibly list.

One thing is for sure. This issue is bigger and way more complex than just corn.

Here’s the interactive part!

Did I miss the mark? Or you just disagree? Please link or send a credible source my way, and I’ll give it a look.

Do you have more questions? Ask away, and I’ll try to do some more research.

Believe it or not, I did do a fair amount of reading and searching to compile this haphazard post. SO much info is out there, and we’re all smart enough to know that not everything on the Internet is fact.

It’s easy to get engrossed in an article or book and get so worried about the content you forget that opinions can sound very much like facts. Statistics can be misleading. Even good journalism has bias if you look for it.

These things made this post challenging, but it’s still important to dig for information.

I hope whether you agree or disagree, this post has made you put on your thinking cap!

About Lisa

Hi, I'm Lisa. Dairy farmer's wife and Minnesotan to the core, I write about rural farm life, running down country roads, and the food, faith, and family that bind everything together. Follow along on my journey.
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8 Responses to Corn: the good, the bad, and what to do

  1. Heidi Nicole says:

    Yay! Thanks!
    I knew that growing up we always worked corn into the diet of our cows and while I know we didn’t run a fully proper farm like you do {jealous, by the way…} I’m relatively certain we didn’t intentionally sabotage our cows to a slow and painful death!

    I think there are just so many stories and sides to every issue…being extreme one way or the other just feels like you are missing out on so much. I get choosing healthier options but I’m with you – cutting down sugar additives in general will make you a healthier person than subbing cane sugar!

    On top of that I’m far too lazy to cut corn out of every facet of my diet so I’m really glad to know it isn’t going to slowly kill me either…at least not without some help from KitKat bars and butter! And people with masters and PhDs in cow/animal nutrition?! Crazy talk! But really cool all at the same time!

    Thanks for putting all the time into putting this together…I feel smarter already. And I’m going to enjoy my corn chunks, HFCS and rich, juicy burgers without {too much} guilt! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Lisa says:

      Oh heavens, I don’t know if we run a “fully proper” farm (or at least I know we’re not perfect), but thank you. ๐Ÿ™‚ Glad the info was helpful. I know I wasn’t that great at citing lots of sources, but it was hard to find good info. It scares me how much misinformation is readily available. I know there’s lots of stuff I missed talking about altogether, so I guess I’ll see if I get questions! I realized didn’t even touch the whole paleo “no grain” debate, but I’m guessing you’re not contemplating that anyhow.

  2. Dana says:

    Lisa I think you did a great job giving the facts coupled with your opinions on corn and HFCS. I now feel much more well informed on topic. I honestly think the whole HFCS thing is just a marketing ploy … similar to the “whole grain” movement. It leads Americans to think things are healthier because it says no HFCS front and center on the label. I have to laugh when I see the kids cereals that are loaded with sugar and a “whole grain” logo stamped on the front. I digress….

    • Lisa says:

      It’s fine to digress; I agree with you! The cereals are a great example. It’s just silly we’ve convinced ourselves that packaged, artificially sweet foods are fine as long as they contain cane sugar or some whole grain. I eat my share of junk food though, but usually I know whether it’s good for me or not. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Heidi Nicole says:

      Hey now…I really enjoy thinking that my Kix are a great source of whole grain, thank you very much! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. taratru says:

    Interesting stuff! We eat grass-fed because our family has a ranch and butchers. We love it and can definitely taste the difference. But it’s strictly a taste thing, not necessarily a health thing. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Lisa says:

      Very cool; I didn’t realize that! Our beef that we eat tends to be “combination-fed” I suppose. They get grain, but in summer they go on our pasture as we have room too.

  4. Thanks for sharing – this was very informative and well-written. I had also read and heard that HFCS was just like regular added sugar, so trying to steer clear of that wasn’t really that big of a deal anyway. I think it’s the same with partially hydrogenated oil in peanut butter – everyone is all up in arms about it but when you look at regular peanut butter, the levels of trans fats are so negligible that they don’t even need to be listed. To be, that’s just doesn’t merit the hard work of stirring the natural peanut butter.

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