American fast food is almost entirely made of corn


American fast food is almost entirely produced from corn according to a chemical analysis of dishes served at McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's. The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

American fast food is almost entirely made of corn

American fast food is almost entirely made of corn

November 10, 2008

Study also shows that fast food restaurants are misleading consumers about the oils they use to cook their food products.

American fast food is almost entirely produced from corn according to a chemical analysis of dishes served at McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s. The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Using a stable isotope analysis of carbon and nitrogen to determine the origin of molecules present in hamburgers, chicken, and fries, Hope Jahren and Rebecca Kraft found corn to be the almost exclusive food source of the beef and chicken served in fast food restaurants. The researchers also uncovered evidence to suggest that fast food restaurants are misleading consumers as to the oils used in preparing french fries and that animals slaughtered for production are kept in confined quarters, rather than outdoors.

chart showing carbon and nitrogen content of fast food hamburgers and chicken

Carbon and nitrogen stable isotope values of beef and chicken products sampled, positioned according to geographic region. Chains are designated by symbol (circle = McDonald’s, square = Burger King, diamond = Wendy’s), stable isotope value is designated by color. The 3 restaurants sampled differ by horizontal position, whereas the 3 servings differ by vertical position, creating a grid of 9 values for each chain within each city. Three missing points (C–E) reflect 2 lost substrates from within the entire study (1 servings of chicken and 1 serving of fries). Image and caption text courtesy of PNAS. Click image to enlarge.

The authors say the finding that fast food restaurants are not accurately reporting their sources of oils, lends support for legislation mandating ingredient labeling for fast food. Presently ingredient reporting is a “voluntary and seldom-invoked” process.

“Fastfood corporations, although they constitute more than half the restaurants in the U.S. and sell more than 1 hundred billion dollars of food each year, oppose regulation of ingredient reporting,” the authors write. “Ingredients matter for many reasons: U.S. corn agriculture has been criticized as environmentally unsustainable and conspicuously subsidized.

“Of 160 food products we purchased at Wendy’s throughout the United States, not 1 item could be traced back to a noncorn source. Our work also identified corn feed as the overwhelming source of food for tissue growth, hence for beef and chicken meat, at fast food

chart showing U.S. Corn production, 1950-2007
U.S. Corn production, 1950-2007

The idea that corn — and its derivatives — is increasingly the basis of the American diet has recently been popularized in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the film King Corn. A diet consisting of fast food and products with high fructose corn syrup — including soda, which was excluded from the PNAS study — has been blamed by nutritionists for contributing to rising rates of obesity and diabetes in the United States as well as other health problems, including heart disease.

Making consumers aware of the source of their food is a critical first step to improving the American diet, say Jahren and Kraft.

“Our work highlights the absence of adequate consumer information necessary to facilitate an ongoing evaluation of the American diet,” they conclude.

A. Hope Jahren and Rebecca A. Kraft. Carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes in fastfood: Signatures of corn and confinement. PNAS Early Online Edition for the week of Nov. 10-14, 2008.

King Corn (DVD)

KING CORN is a fun and crusading journey into the digestive tract of our fast food nation where one ultra-industrial, pesticide-laden, heavily-subsidized commodity dominates the food pyramid from top to bottom corn. Fueled by curiosity and a dash of naivete, college buddies Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis return to their ancestral home of Greene, Iowa to figure out how a modest kernel conquered America. With the help of some real farmers, oodles of fertilizer and government aide, and some genetically modified seeds, the friends manage to grow one acre of corn. Along the way, they unlock the hilarious absurdities and scary but hidden truths about America s modern food system in this engrossing and eye-opening documentary.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

The bestselling author of The Botany of Desire explores the ecology of eating to unveil why we consume what we consume in the twenty-first century. Today, as America confronts what can only be described as a national eating disorder, the omnivore’s dilemma has returned with an atavistic vengeance. The cornucopia of the modern American supermarket and fast-food outlet has thrown us back on a bewildering landscape where we once again have to worry about which of those tasty-looking morsels might kill us. At the same time we’re realizing that our food choices also have profound implications for the health of our environment. The Omnivore’s Dilemma is bestselling author Michael Pollan’s brilliant and eye-opening exploration of these little-known but vitally important dimensions of eating in America.

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