Thursday, April 19, 2007

Average American Consumes 1500 Pounds of Corn a Year

I am reading The Omnivore's Dilemma and the information Michael Pollan throws down about corn usage in America is amazing. The US is the number one consumer of corn per capita in the world. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Americans consume 700 kg (1540 lbs) per capita a year.

Wow! Every man, woman and child consumes 1500 pounds of corn a year, or over 4 pounds a day! That is unbelievable.

Where does all that corn go? 60% of corn grown in the US is feed to livestock. The beef, chicken and pork you eat all came courtesy of corn. Corn is also used to make high fructose corn syrup which has replaced sugar in most soft drinks. And then there is ethanol which accounted for 20% of the 2006 crop.

Pollan explains that you can take a tissue or hair sample and actually see what percentage of the food you ate originated as corn. I don't completely understand how this works, but it goes something like this. Corn is a C4 plant whereas wheat, rice and potatoes are C3 plants. C4 plants absorb more of the carbon-13 isotope (or C-13) than the C-12 isotope (another isotope of carbon is C-14 which allows for carbon dating). By comparing the ratio of C-13 to C-12 in a hair or tissues, you can determine where the carbon originally came from and hence what you have eaten (or what the animals you have eaten have eaten).

When Pollan had his meal at McDonalds analyzed he found the following:

In order of diminishing corniness, this is how the laboratory measured our meal: soda (100% corn), milk shake (78%), salad dressing (65%), chicken nuggets (56%), cheeseburger (52%) and French fries (23%). What in the eyes of the omnivore looks like a meal of impressive variety turns out, when viewed through the eyes of the mass spectrometer, to be the meal of a far more specialized kind of eater.
Americans typically think of themselves as wheat eaters because they eat 114 lbs of wheat flour per person per year vs. only 11 pounds of corn flour. Mexicans on the other hand consider themselves People of the Corn as 40% of the calories they eat come from corn, most in the form of tortillas. But based on the tissue samples, we are the ones who should rightfully should claim the label. Mexicans still eat beef that has been raised on grass and drink soft drinks sweetened with cane sugar while both of those are made from corn now in the US.

What are the implication for the US of consuming so much corn? NationMaster has a neat tool that shows what each statistic correlates with. The top 6 statistics that correlate with corn consumption per capita : Meat production (per capita) (correlation at 81%), Ecological footprint (71%), Economic activity > Men aged 40-44 (inverse) (70%), Total expenditure on health as % of GDP (67%), Economic activity > Men aged 45-49 (inverse) (65%), Employment in arms production (per capita) (60%). So, nations with high corn consumption eat a lot of meat, have a large ecological footprint, have low economic activity in men aged 40-50, high health expenditures and high arms production employment. Yikes!


Audacious Epigone said...

Four pounds of corn? Who eats four pounds of anything each day? That's sixteen quarter-pounders...

I'm an avid runner and biker, and I play basketball and soccer. My daily caloric intake is around 4,000. Running through it in my head, I don't see how even that comes to four pounds, unless you count liquids.

Fat Knowledge said...


You are correct, we don't eat all that corn directly. In fact, Pollan estimates that less than 56lbs of the 1500lbs is consumed directly, which would be around 1/6 a pound a person a day.

The rest comes from the meats, soft drinks and gasoline with ethanol that we consume.

To throw around some rough numbers, I believe it takes around 10 calories of grain to create 1 calorie of beef. A quarter pound of beef has approximately 259 calories which would take 2,590 calories of corn to make. Corn has approximately 389 calories per pound, so if the cow was feed a diet of just corn, a quarter pound of beef would take 6.6 pounds of corn to make.

If each person ate just 1 quarter pounder a day and the cow was feed nothing but corn, we would actually consume 2,400 lbs of corn a year!

Audacious Epigone said...


Brilliant answer. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Interesting subject and information will use some of this info on my YouTube documentary thanx AE great answer

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