Anyone who knows me well is familiar with my Achilles heel in gastronomy: tortilla chips. Like a lover’s lust, I am drawn to them whenever they are near. I see them, I court them, I devour them. It’s really bad. I have eaten tortilla chips nearly once a week, every week, every year for the past 20 years. I would eat them every day if it weren’t for their deleterious effect on my figure. But even I have often wondered about tortilla chips’ (and cousin, movie popcorn’s) power over me. What draws me to corn? Salt and carbs. yes. Ah, but the emotion, the romance, the love of them. Could there be more to it? I decided to investigate.
Most of us learned in grade school that corn, or maize, was a key staple in the diets of New World civilizations. Previously unknown to Europe, this golden grain quickly became a valuable food crop, producing huge yields with minimal cultivation. I remember doing a report about the Native Americans as a child, made up of facts since proven to be largely rubbish. But in particular, I remember the romantic story of corn as the Native American staple, the focus of cultural mystique among New World tribes, as presented in my history book. Maize just sounds good. Like yoga and health and sunshine. Remember those commercials with the lovely girl cupping her hand around the sun which morphed into corn oil? True, early Americans planned their yearly calendars around the production of corn. It was a big deal.
Corn is pretty controversial these days, and highly political. Up until the 1970’s, corn was largely used as livestock fodder. By the 2000’s, corn production was primarily used to develop High Fructose Corn Sweetener, also highly controversial. Over the decades, corn has been genetically modified to produce larger ears with pest-resistant attributes. Different strains of corn have been developed to grow in changing and differing climates, and have produced corn varieties that vary in color, kernel size and number of kernel rows. Corn derivatives are in an estimated 99% of commercially bought food products, according to author Michael Pollan. According to an article by Pollan posted on the Center for Ecoliteracy website, corn is the sweetener in your soda, it’s in your processed meat, in breads and sauces, and every other conceivable food you find at your average grocery store. Corn and soybeans, corn’s slightly more respected cousin, are the “keystone species of the industrial food system,” according to Michael Pollan the author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”
Corn is relatively easy to grow if you have a moderate climate and consistent water source. It germinates in roughly five to ten days and can grow up to 15 feet tall. Each plant can produce two to three ears. Here’s the sexy part. Corn stalks have a reproductive process where the male flowers or tassels of the plant move pollen down into the female flowers or silks. Each silk pollinates exactly one kernel of corn, so for a full ear of corn, each silk must be pollinated. That silky stuff you rip off when you shuck corn, you are throwing away the sexy parts. And the kernels are filled with what is called “milk” that is ultimately converted into starch which gives corn its unique sweet flavor. The milk stage of the ears is considered prime harvest time because that sweetness is the golden standard.
Sounds good so far, right? Well, for the most part, human beings cannot digest corn. We can digest the milk, which turns into a quick glucose energy source in our bodies. The corn hull and kernel go straight through and exit our bodies. Some people call it “fiber.” But now we are onto something. For primitive civilizations, corn provided a quick energy source. It is a huge crop yield and it is easily stored and dried. It is versatile. For centuries now, the lure of corn has been part and parcel of the sugar burst we get from eating it. It tastes good. It’s filling. We crave the sugar it provides. We are addicted to it. Well, I am, anyway.
Aye, there’s the rub. You may have read my recent article “Sugar: Why you should avoid it like the plague.” Sugar acts like a drug in the body and is arguably one of if not the most addictive substances we ingest. I try to avoid sugar whenever possible in its obvious forms. And so sails my boat, Denial. I love tortilla chips because they are filled with the sugar I normally avoid. They are my secret side entrance to an indulgent, carb-storing hoarding party. For early civilizations, it was no doubt a lifesaver providing precious calories in the lean seasons. Corn is sugar and is calorie dense, and highly efficient at delivering a quick glucose dump. And so, this also is why I both love it and hate it. I don’t eat corn on the cob. I avoid High Fructose Corn Syrup and its derivatives. I don’t like to eat sugar. But tortilla chips, they are my weakness. Now I know they are just sugar with a dress on. I know that all the ill effects I avoid become activated in my body when I eat corn tortilla chips. I love them and scorn them, but I am as addicted to tortilla chips as a moth is to light.
All this can be summed up with a good quote.
Ben Franklin supposedly once said, “It is easier to prevent bad habits than to break them.”
The best way to prevent bad habits is to get educated about them before you’re in too deep. While there’s little help for me at this point, consider yourself ‘schooled.
For more information on how to make better food choices for you and your family, join Jamie Oliver’s campaign for food education.