King corn: you are what you eat.


Year: 2007

Type: Documentary film (88 minutes)

Starring: Ian Cheney & Curt Ellis

Production company: Mosaic Films (US)

Availability: DVD (via King Corn website in 2-disc format for US$25, via for US$15, via for £5.83).

Page reference: Best, B., Garunay, M., Logan, M. and McWilliams, A. (2012) King Corn. ( last accessed <insert date here>)



Two recent college grads discover where America’s food comes from when they plant a single acre of corn and follow it from the seed to the dinner plate (Source: Anon nda np link).

King Corn is a feature documentary about two friends, one acre of corn, and the subsidized crop that drives our fast-food nation. In King Corn, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, best friends from college on the east coast, move to the heartland to learn where their food comes from. With the help of friendly neighbours, genetically modified seeds, and powerful herbicides, they plant and grow a bumper crop of America's most-productive, most-subsidized grain on one acre of Iowa soil. But when they try to follow their pile of corn into the food system, what they find raises troubling questions about how we eat-and how we farm (Source: Anon ndb np link).

Filmed in digital video and Super-8, using clever stop-motion corn kernel animation and a lyrical score by the 'anti-folk’ band the WoWz, King Corn takes what could be a tiresome agri-civics lesson and delivers a lively, funny, sad and even poetic treatise on the reality behind America's cherished self-image as the breadbasket of the world (Source: Hornaday nd np link).

The film… is an attempt to influence the farm bill, a federal law that governs the nation’s farm policy. Film makers Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney based an unsubstantiated assault on the corn industry on their experience growing one acre of corn in 2005 (Source: Anon 2007 np link).

[They] decide to learn why “people who grew up eating the way we did are basically made out of corn.” So they move to Greene, Iowa, where both their great-grandfathers once lived, in order to grow an acre of the yellow stuff. The actual farming is minimal, leaving them plenty of time to examine why maize is so dramatically overproduced in this country that mountains of it sit next to skyscraper-tall granaries, and to find the victims of this artificially cheap ingredient (Source: Powell, B. 2008 p.77 link).

[They] make friends with many local farmers, and take side trips to interview professors and other experts on issues that arise around farming. At the end of their journey, when they finally get to eat their corn, they are disappointed – they have grown industrial corn, and it’s inedible (Source: Onion 2008 p.122 link).

The film adds humor to lighten a heavy topic. After being denied access to corn refining plants that make high fructose corn syrup, the two decide to make it themselves in a kitchen. “It tastes great,” says Cheney, spitting the homemade syrup out. They both sample an ear of corn from their acre. “It’s disgusting,” says Ellis (Source: Anon 2008a np link).

Over half of the crop goes to feed cattle, another third goes for ethanol and exports, and then a significant minority of it goes to make high fructose corn syrup and similar sweeteners that you’ll find on virtually every label of processed food. In short, this is corn that is not really food. Cheney and Ellis netted a loss of $19.92 on their acre of corn, but that’s before massive government subsidies put them in the black (Source: Clendenin 2008 np link).

King Corn is kind of like Super Size Me’s little brother. It traces the pervasive influence of corn on modern America, including the obesity epidemic and the fact that Iowa is growing trillions of bushels of *non-edible* corn to continue receiving lucrative government subsidies (Source: Veggiechiliqueen 2008 np link).

The film also examines tractors’ relationships to the daily schedules of the farmers, who now spend so little time on farming that they can farm thousands and thousands of acres as a single operation, and still remain idle for large periods of time (Source: Onion 2008 p.122 link).

The film shows how the perception of industrialization in corn has all but eliminated the image of the family farm, which is being replaced by larger and larger industrial farms. Cheney and Ellis suggest that this trend reflects a larger industrialization of the North American food system. As was outlined in the film, decisions relating to what crops are grown and how they are grown are based on economic considerations rather than their environmental or social ramifications. This is demonstrated in the film by the production of high fructose corn syrup, an ingredient found in many cheap food products, such as fast food (Source: Wikipedia nd np link).

This lively, engaging and visually arresting documentary follows Yale graduates Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis as they visit an isotope lab, where a technician informs then that a carbon analysis of their hair indicates they’re “corn-based” (Source: Hornaday 2007 np link).

[They] spell out in very basic terms, what has gone so wrong with American agriculture and its direct product, American food. They present their hardest evidence first: Ellis and Cheney have their strands of hair analyzed at the University of Virginia. The result: the carbon in their bodies originated from corn. The two Ivy League grads seem shocked and appalled. They run to the grocery store and start reading labels of their favorite food products such as Twinkies and apple juice. They find out the obvious — most packaged foods in America contain some derivative of corn, whether it comes in the form of corn oil, the infamous and ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup or the mysterious xanthan gum (Source: Newbury 2008 np link).

Inspiration / Process / Technique / Methodology

The story: after being inspired by Michael Pollan, who said famously, “If you take a McDonald’s meal, you don’t realize it when you eat it, but you’re eating corn.” Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney drive to Iowa to plant an acre of corn. Not tasty eating corn, but the typical American industrial corn that doesn’t taste like anything but makes great corn syrup. They don’t exactly plant it either, but follow their friendly and cooperative neighbours as they use the equipment, fertilizers, seeds and pesticides that Iowa farmers use; the harvest at the end of the season takes exactly eighteen minutes. They wanted to follow their corn from start to finish, much like Michael Pollan did with his cow; they were not able to do this as their corn just disappeared into the North American industrial food machine. However they were able to demonstrate how the system works (often with very cute Fisher-Price farm toys in stop-motion animation) how hard the farmers work, how the entire system is distorted by subsidies, and how it really isn’t even food (Source: Alter 2008 np link).

Curt: Ian Cheney & I were graduating from college and realized we knew next to nothing about the food we were eating every day. It felt like our education was incomplete. On a whole other level, the obesity and diabetes epidemic caught our attention. We saw a report that said people of our generation were likely to have a shorter life expectancy than our parents. We decided to look into this and fill the gap in our education because we wanted to understand where our food was coming from…We decided to “tell” this story and we thought the best way to learn about the role of corn was to grow it ourselves and follow it to market. We moved to Iowa and grew one acre of corn in the way a typical farmer would grow 1,000 acres of corn. We used genetically modified feed, anhydrous ammonia fertilizer and a $400,000 combine…Our film developed a mission along the way. The mission is to help more people understand where their food is coming from and to understand the policies that drive the way we eat. With some simple changes in farm and food policy, we can make some big strides in helping all Americans get access to healthy, affordable and fresh food (Source: Anon 2008b np link).

Mr. Woolf… was not especially interested in food or food policy, but his younger cousin was, as he discovered when the two built a house together. Mr. Woolf, who lives in New York, gave Mr. Ellis $5,000, telling him to travel the country and find an idea about food that could be made into a film. Mr. Ellis took Mr. Cheney along and the two kept a log of what they ate on their journey. They discovered that corn — in one form or another — dominated their diets, which they confirmed with a test of the chemical makeup of their hair. They also learned that their great-grandfathers had grown up a few miles apart in a corn-growing region of northern Iowa. Naturally, corn emerged as their topic…“I hope people will understand better the system that produces most of our food in America, and realize we have a lot of power to confront it,” he said. ”We can vote with our dollars, but we can also vote with our votes” (Source: Drape 2007 np link).

We originally thought we could follow our exact corn to where it was consumed. We learned pretty quickly that wouldn’t be possible, though. As soon as you drop it off at the elevator, your corn blends with millions of other bushels of corn, and disappears into trucks and rail cars that crisscross the country. That wasn’t really the right way to approach the story from a journalistic perspective, either. What really matters was where America’s corn goes as a whole. So that led us quickly to sweeteners, which aren’t the biggest users of corn, but certainly they’re among the most important. Sweeteners in turn led us to the places where soda gets drunk in large quantities, and Brooklyn’s as good a place as you could imagine for that. From there it wasn’t a big leap to get into a cab—that’s the best way to get around—and it wasn’t even too surprising that our cab driver had diabetes—one in eight New Yorkers does. But it was a shock to us how much the driver, Mr. Mendez, had to say. He’d lost his whole family to diabetes, and blamed soda for his own weight problem. The first time we met him, we didn’t have the camera with us, so we asked if we could ride with him again and film the conversation. He was happy to do it (Source: Hall 2009 p.807-814).

Discussion / Responses

corn syrup = satan (Source: modernlifechews 2008 np link).

If we are what we eat, we are corn--the modern staff of life. In a gentle but extraordinarily subversive narrative, King Corn skillfully takes us through the industrial food chain, from field to plate. All actors in this story receive compassionate treatment--from Iowa farmers and Colorado cattlemen to diabetic New Yorkers and an engaging Earl Butz, the former USDA Secretary who advocated maximum production, damn the consequences. There are no 'bad guys' here. And yet, the net result is a devastating sketch of a food production system that is economically, ecologically, and medically unsustainable. How did we ever get into such a fix? (Source: Belasco nd np link).

King Corn starts off with a fresh premise, but the information it presents on high fructose corn syrup contains many well-worn myths. New research continues to confirm that high fructose corn syrup is no different from other sweeteners. It has the same number of calories as sugar and honey. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has long recognized that high fructose corn syrup is safe. No single food or ingredient is the sole cause of obesity. Rather, too many calories and too little exercise is a primary cause. Consumption of high fructose corn syrup has been dropping in recent years, yet the rates of obesity and diabetes in the United States continue to rise. Moreover, many other parts of the world have rising rates of obesity and diabetes, despite having little or no high fructose corn syrup in their foods and beverages (Source: Gorrell nd np link).

Beautifully paced film, very entertaining, however I think that it was poorly researched and perpetuates several myths. Harvey A. Levenstein,in his book 'Revolution at the table: the transformation of the American diet' carefully documents changes reformers, scientists and large corporations have wrought on our foods from 1880 to 1930. The goals haven't changed toward cheaper, labor-saving foods. It does perpetuate the myth that farmers prior to the 1970's were self-sufficient and nutritiously fed from the products of their farms. We have this idealized vision that farming in our grandfathers time was healthy and happy; like the Ozzie and Harriet nuclear families of the 1950's. Many farmers of previous generations were undernourished and died early due to lack of quality food which is ironic because we assume farmers have the easiest access to good food. Obesity and the increase of diabetes is a complex issue and while HFCS clearly plays a role, it is not the only problem. I hope future films these talented film makers produce will be properly researched so as to avoid perpetuating myths. Over simplification of cause and effect for complex issues such as obesity and diabetes diminishes the quality of the film leading viewers to wonder what other statements are being made that are only half truths or falsehoods (Source: Sky 2008 np link).

I watched and was very disappointed with how little you told of the miracle modern agriculture. It is easy to complain and find fault when your stomach is full of very available and very affordable food. Agriculture today provides the safest diet in history to a growing and more affluent world population. Not to mention that it provides an assortment of non-food products and bio-fuels. Let's do another documentary and tell the truth. The U.S. is very fortunate to have its ag industry (Source: Powell, S. 2008 np link).

King Corn tells the truth. No one in my area wants to rent a farm with farm buildings. Farm management experts... advise tearing down most, if not all, buildings. At one time there were neighboring 'ghost farmsteads' with trees, orchards, but no mailboxes. Most of those remnants are now gone. I've burned down all my wooden buildings, except for the 'century house'. I'm 75. When I'm gone someone else can raze that. The impoverishment and de-humanizing of Iowa is deliberate government policy, the opposite of some European countries. Our present system does work well for huge agricultural supply and commodity conglomerates. High tarrifs on imported cane sugar exacerbate the problem. The goal is to keep Americans eating inferior corn sugar products at protected prices. It takes a lifetime of on-farm experience to successfully operate a viable 'sustainable agriculture' farm. Such expertise is dying or dead. Iowans raise 'export kids' to find careers in other states. The DVD 'King Corn' tells the true story on many levels. The rationale for providing much food at low cost is deeply flawed and unsustainable, but highly appealing to the 'sound bite' crowd. Food that is truly 'good for you' may cost twice as much in stores and four times as much in restaurants. Are you ready, willing and able to pay for good quality rather than poor quantity? (Source: Leenaars 2010 np link).

I'm a farmer, and these boys are dead right. This Monsanto nightmare of "Frankenfoods" is killing off the independant American farmer faster than ACORN is killing off the honest vote. These GMO purveyors of world hunger have to be stopped before it's too late. The yields are LOWER, NOT HIGHER. The cost is 4 to 8 times higher! The health effects are terrifying, if humans turn out to be susceptible like cattle fertility has proven to be. And it's all done for what? More yachts and golf? (Source: SkylinerOblique 2009 np link).

To the corn farmers of Iowa it has all come as a bit of a shock. “We spend more time defending our industry than we do promoting it. Every day in the media we’re being chastised” (Source: Ayres 2007 np link).

At every turn they put a negative spin on every aspect of corn. Not surprisingly, slow-food movement advocate Michael Pollan was an advisor to the project, according to a New York Times article on the movie. Much of the movie replays Pollan’s worn out mantra that corn is the cause of obesity... King Corn is big on one-sided criticism but absent on any solutions. We do have problems with our farm policy, corn production, and nutrition. But politically motivated slander films like King Corn do nothing to help find answers that will work for producers and consumers (Source: Klemperer 2007 np link).

These boys are wrong in so many ways. Just copying Michael Pollan, who is wrong in so many ways. We are all responsible for what we eat. The store shelves are full of fruit and vegetables. It is a personal choice, and if you are obese it is your own problem. I'm 6'2" and 180 lbs and I eat more corn than most folks--but I work. If you don't work, eat less. King Corn is a waste of effort, except the boys made money (Source: John Shelton 2009 np link).

Americans are both villain and victim in the story of corn. As the Colorado cattleman who operates a feedlot for fourteen thousand miserable-looking cattle says in the film, “If the American people wanted strictly grass fed beef, we would produce grassfed beef for them. But it’s definitely more expensive, and one of the tenets in America is, America wants and demands cheap food.” King Corn shows us just some of the rotten kernels in the empire of corn… Altieri criticized the film for being simplistic, for failing to talk about how all the corn the U.S. grows is genetically modified, and how we’re “dumping corn on Mexico” and contaminating that country’s maize stocks, as well as exporting obesity (Source: Powell, B. 2008 p.79).

The meat that we eat in this day and age is produced in a feed lot. It’s grain-fed meat, and we produce a characteristically obese animal, animals whose muscle tissue looks more like fat tissue than it does lean meat in wild animals,” commented Loren Cordain in the documentary King Corn. Watching this educational and thought-provoking video in my economics class, I wondered, like the film’s narrators, about the effects of corn feed. But instead of focusing on its effects on humans who consumed its byproduct, beef, I wondered about the feed’s effects on the cows that ate it (Source: Redd 2010 p.1 link).

It kind of pisses me off that they feed cows corn, yeah i know their gonna die soon but they suffer until then... seriously, how f*&$±n expensive is grass? (Source: RexTheCyberdog 2011 np link).

Ellis and Cheney plant genetically engineered corn and buy chemical herbicides that kill everything in sight except for their corn (which was engineered to resist it) but they do not go into any sort of conversation about the companies who have been shoving these products down the American farmer’s throat. No mention of Monsanto or Bayer or any of the other seed/herbicide companies. It leaves a giant hole in this film’s overall thesis and plot (Source: Newbury 2008 np link).

When the film was being shot in 2004, American farmers were still growing their corn at what would be a loss, if not for subsidies, as they have for years. Now that corn prices have topped five dollars a bushel (fueled in part by government incentives for corn-based ethanol)‚ that is no longer true, and commodity meat producers are groaning at feed costs. No less than The Economist is predicting the end to cheap food, and it’s possible that the very system King Corn documents is about to be derailed… But odds are that corn will triumph (Source: Powell, B. 2008 p.79).

The somewhat goofy premise of two East Coast 20-somethings heading to Iowa to farm a single acre of corn actually works, and it works well. Students will be pulled in by Ian and Curt's curiosity and doggedness on their mission to understand how corn becomes us. Along the way, we learn quite a bit about the current realities of Midwest crop farming, decline and resilience in rural America, and the contradictory and disturbing implications of U.S. commodity subsidy policy in shaping the options and outcomes of our food system. King Corn presents a compelling mix of experts and regulars with clarity and compassion. It generates enough laughs to be fun, while also stimulating serious thinking about the important topic of how farm practices and policies influence the food we eat (Source: Hinrichs nd np link).

A few particularly damning points continue to stay with me. First, given our type 2 diabetes epidemic and the massive scale of obesity we’re dealing with, the federal government’s outdated agricultural policy and utter subservience to Big Agra’s interests are outrageous. Not only is the entire racket wasteful and antithetical to a free market system, but given our knowledge about the nutritional vacuum that is the corn kernel, it’s completely irresponsible. Second, you’ll learn some things you might wish you hadn’t. For example, though farm-raised cattle is almost exclusively corn-fed, corn is literally toxic to cows. In fact, if you feed a cow corn, it will die within a year. Fortunately, the rapid production cycle of the factory farm system slaughters the cow before this happens (Source: Sisson nd np link).

Impacts / Outcomes

The makers of King Corn bring their film to 9 Iowa towns during a “Corn Belt Tour,” and document Iowans’ reactions to the film (Source: Kingcornfilm 2007 np link).

The emerging ethanol economy has brought prosperity to Iowa, but it has also deepened the drive to squeeze more bushels of corn out of every acre of land. Farmers are applying more fertilizer, planting more high-yielding GMO seeds, and investing in bigger combines than ever before. Even in the ethanol age, corn-syrup factories and corn-based feedlots are demanding a steady flow of ingredients, too, and farmers are pushing hard to meet the dual demand. But as we learned over and over when we sat down to eat last week, Iowa’s consumers are seeking out food that comes from somewhere beyond the industrial kitchen. In Algona, a local family invited us [King Corn team] to join them for artisan-cured kielbasa soup, and we met a woman not much older than me who is helping start a natural-foods co-op. She has a four-acre CSA farm of her own, too, where she grows fruits and vegetables for local members — many of them corn and soybean farmers who can’t eat the crops they harvest from their 1,000-acre farms (Source: Ellis 2007b np link).

The [filmmakers]… became hyper-aware of the many ways corn played a part in their typically fast-food/processed-food eating regimen, as well as in the nation’s agribusiness. On a multi-city film tour, the pair kept fielding the same question from food-concerned media: Had “King Corn” changed the way they eat? Not so much, they admitted. In the few years’ time between the film’s wrap and release, Ellis and Cheney managed to eat more grass-fed beef and less beef produced from corn feedlots. They were horrified to see what corn could do to a cow’s digestive tract. But they slipped back into their old high-fructose-corn-syrup-filled snack habits (Source: Benwick 2007 np link).

This is the second year I have used this video in my environmental science class. It really paints a poor picture of the american use of corn. We follow up the unit with a field trip to a feed lot with 400 head of cattle. This family farm also works 6000 acres for corn and soybeans. Between these two experiences, it really opens the students eyes to the world of agriculture as well as the fuel they put int their stomachs. I personally went on a no corn syrup diet for 6 months after I first saw this (Source: Neontetra 2012 np link).

Ron Litterer may be having second thoughts about becoming president of the National Corn Growers Association next month. Litterer hasn’t become a poster boy for farm policy critics the way some farm group leaders have in recent years. But the Floyd County, Iowa, farmer has begun to get some heat from national media who have picked up on livestock industry complaints about the demand for ethanol driving up food prices. An Associated Press article that made the Sunday newspapers noted that when Litterer begins making the rounds in Washington asking for support for increased ethanol production this fall, meat, dairy and food processor spokesmen will be lobbying in the other direction. A press release for a new anti-farm documentary film, “King Corn,” contains a reference to Greene, Iowa, Litterer’s hometown. The release claims current farm policy (especially on corn) is depressing rural economies, destroying family farms and wreaking havoc on our health (Source: Laws 2007 np link).

King Corn couldn’t be more timely. The mammoth new Farm Bill is currently stalled in the U.S. Senate, partly because of debate over the nature of its subsidy program. The bill is up for renewal every five years or so, and in the past, has passed through Congress without much debate. But calls for reform this time around are unprecedented. Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, recently told the Los Angeles Times, “Farm bills always favor the status quo when they’re rushed. This gives us some time to educate people.” Reformists’ changes to the current bill include increased funding for food stamps and for nutritious food distributed through government-funded school lunches. King Corn usefully complements these efforts to rein in giant agribusiness and to reevaluate Washington’s food policy (Source: Terrall 2007 np link).

The Henry A. Wallace Center invited “King Corn” to screen in Washington D.C. several weeks ago, and after doing our best to rustle up some clean shirts, we showed the film Tuesday night on Capitol Hill. Ian drove down from Boston in the old Dodge truck we had in Iowa, winding along the New Jersey Turnpike with the truck bed full of corn. The Capitol police seemed a little confused as to what we were up to, but we thought lawmakers 1,000 miles from Iowa might want to take a closer look at what all those farm subsidies are buying: truckload after truckload of yellow dent corn. “King Corn” is still very much a grassroots operation, so we spent the day renting audio speakers and setting up chairs . . . and the room was still pretty much in chaos when our first guest arrived: the Chief Scientific and Medical Officer for the American Diabetes Association. I snuck down the hall to put on my tie, and re-hydrated with (shhh!) a few sips of high-fructose lemonade from a soda machine. When start-time rolled around, the room filled up, the crowd laughed, and people from both sides of the political aisle stuck around for questions. We were especially happy to have two participants from the film in the audience. Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association, came from her Washington office. And Chuck Pyatt, our landlord and mentor on the farm, came from Iowa with his wife, Hattie. While it was a real honor to see congresspeople watching the film, there were a lot of people our age in the room, too — their aides. Looking around, I began to realize that in many ways those young people might be just as important to reach as the lawmakers they work for. They’re the line cooks in the congressional kitchen, the ones who’ll be drawing up the final language for the Farm Bill we’ll all be eating from for the next five years. And they know what it’s like to grow up in a food system fueled by cheap corn. With the Farm Bill due for a committee vote in the Senate next week, we’re very, very glad they came (Source: Ellis 2007a np link).

KING CORN provided the backdrop for the first Filmocracy mashup contest, where we asked: If you are what you eat, what are you? Do you care about what you eat and where your food comes from? Are you tired of our fast food nation? Many people used the powerful medium of film to make a statement about the politics of food using KING CORN clips and footage from Getty Images. Participants uploaded their own clips as well, and mixed it all up with the Eyespot tool (Source: Anon ndf np link).

My family wants to increase the amount of corn we grown on our fields. That means doing business with agribusiness firms like DuPont/Pioneer or Monsanto. Demons all! All the genetically altered food stuff is making us sick. it needs to stop but how can I make my family stop? I am looking for an alternative, even keeping growing corn just the way we are but not the agribusiness way. HELP! (Source: CC 2010 np link).

In response to recent criticism, the Corn Refiners Association, the industry organisation that represents some of America’s leading manufacturers of corn sweetener, has launched a $25 million campaign to defend the good name of high-fructose corn syrup. Check out the ad from the Corn Refiners Association below, and then watch the spoofs from the King Corn team (Source: Anon ndg np link).

[Mom 1 pouring juice]
Mom 2: Wow, you don’t care what the kids eat, huh?
Mom 1: Excuse me?
Mom 2: That has high fructose corn syrup in it.
Mom 1: And...
Mom 2: You know what they say about it--
Mom 1: Like what
Mom 2: ...I’s...
Mom 1: ...that it’s made from corn, that it’s natural, and like sugar, it’s fine in moderation.
Mom 2: [chuckles uncomfortably ]...Looove that top!
Narrator: Get the facts. You’re in for a sweet surprise.
(Source: Corn Refiners Association 2011 watch).



Great spoof. The Corn Refiners Association and their industry cohorts are in deep trouble. The ad campaign that they spearheaded will only serve to hasten their demise. I'm glad to report that the CRA sponsored commercials have served a great function by accelerating the public's curiosity on the topic of high fructose corn syrup. Concerned citizens are researching this matter for themselves and are learning that HFCS is dangerous (Source: logtype47 nd np link).

Narrator: The following is a message from the Corn Syrup Producers of America.
[Mom 1 pouring juice]
Mom 2: Wow, you don’t care what the kids eat, huh?
Mom 1: Excuse me?
Mom 2: That has high fructose corn syrup in it.
Mom 1: And?
Mom 2: Well, you know the things they say about high fructose corn syrup.
Mom 1: Like what?
Mom 2: Well, umm...
Mom 1: That it’s made from corn, it’s natural enough, and like sugar, it’s fine in moderation?
Mom 2: I guess...
Mom 1: You guess what? That you should have kept your mouth shut?
Mom 2: I-- I never...
Mom 1: Never what? Never heard of science? You know this is a real jam for me. Trust scientists or stay-at-home mom Sheila from down the street who’s having wine at 10 a.m.
Mom 2: I’m sorry, let’s just--
Mom 1: --Let’s just what? Make a bigger deal about the corn syrup? At this fun party that I’ve invited you to even though I didn’t want to because you say s*** like this?
Mom 2: OK. Um-- hey, that’s a great sweater.
Mom 1: Thanks. It was my daughter’s but she grew out of it.
Child 1 [Overweight man in tight clothing]: Mommy, can I have some more juicy drink?
Mom 1: Of course you can.
Child 1: Yes!!
Mom 2: She’s cute.
Mom 1: Yup.
Narrator: Get the facts. Check out our website and no other websites.
(Source: Saturday Night Live 2011 watch)

Americans in recent months have been puzzled by a series of print and television ads promoting a ubiquitous food ingredient that until recently flew under the radar of public perception: highfructose corn syrup. The ads anchor a $20-30 million dollar publicity campaign called “Sweet Surprise” funded by the Corn Refiners Association, and are aimed at clearing the name of HFCS, their trademark product. In some ways, the industry’s reaction is justified. The sweetener is being blamed in some quarters for single-handedly creating the obesity epidemic. For the food conscious cognoscenti, HFCS has become a kind of nutritional bogeyman. Across the country, stores are touting foods that are “corn-syrup free” and parents are purging their pantries of the stuff. But both sides are missing the point. High-fructose corn syrup itself is not the problem; the problem is that we have far too much of it. The Sweet Surprise TV ads conclude with the cheery rejoinder, “Like sugar, high fructose corn syrup is fine in moderation.” But unfortunately our nations’ consumption of the stuff is anything but moderate––and this fact is largely the result of government policy… No commodity is more subsidized than corn… Today Americans consume more than 40 pounds of HFCS per year, much of it in the form of soda. But more troublingly, because the ingredient brings preservative and browning properties along with its sweetness, we now eat corn syrup––and added calories––in foods that never previously had or needed such conditioning; spaghetti sauce, ranch dressing and dinner rolls… arguments about the nature of HFCS are less crucial than discussions of the policies that gave rise to the stuff in the first place. A new administration in Washington can help build an agriculture that prioritizes local and diverse production of fresh, healthy foods and an overall food system that is far less yoked to the rollercoaster effects of fossil fuel price and availability (Source: Wolfe nd np link).

Those crafty television commercials that claim high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is basically the same thing as conventional sugar have gotten the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), the group responsible for creating them, in a heap of trouble. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) reports that the sugar industry has now sued CRA for making these and other unproven claims about HFCS that are inaccurate and misleading to consumers (Source: Benson 2011 np link).

Curt:.. What are you hearing about the film? Dr. Macko: Good things! People are thinking now about everything from the farm bill to the decline of American farms. The thing about corn, though — we don’t want to eliminate it — it’s good food; we just overindulge because it’s cheap, and can be used to produce foods that are not healthy — meats with more fat, or beverages with more sweetener. Curt: Have you ever tested anyone who didn’t have a corn signal at all? Dr. Macko: Well, there was Oetzi the Iceman. There was no corn in Europe 5,000 years ago, no C4 grasses at all, so he didn’t have any corn (Source: Ellis 2008 np link).

Sources / Further Reading

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Alter, L. (2008) Review: King Corn -You are what you eat,, 8 July
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Anon (nde) Big River, ( last accessed 6 July 2011)

Anon (ndf) F[i]lmocracy: Mix it up, Make a statement, ( last accessed 8 July 2011)

Anon (ndg) Sweet surprise leaves a sour taste, ( last accessed 8 July 2011)

Anon (2007) NCGA Says “King Corn” Film An Attempt to Sway Farm Bill, Globe Newswire, 20 October ( last accessed 6 July 2011)

Anon (2008a) King corn raises disturbing questions about America’s top crop, The Organic & Non-GMO Report, March ( last accessed 28 June 2012)

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Compiled by Yahellah Best, Melanie Garunay, Melissa Logan, and Andrea McWilliams, edited by Alice Goodbrook, Diana Shifrina and Ian Cook (last updated 5 October 2012). Page created for as part of the ‘Anthropologies of global connection’ course, Brown University. Videos embedded with kind permission of the King Corn team. Thanks also to Sue Rouillard.