Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Children of the Corn

       Today's lesson is: History! I promise I will try and make it interesting. So with that being said, let's talk about corn. Okay, okay quit your moaning. Maybe I should have said corn, death and inadvertent revenge. Revenge always seems to spice things up.

      Our tale starts around the 1500's when the Europeans were still chummy with the Native Americans somewhat. Yes, there was such a point in history.  There was an important number of cultural exchanges that happened at this time. Earlier Europeans brought illnesses with them that the Native Americans had no natural antibodies for since they had never encountered the various germs and bacteria that caused them. The Native Americans, of course, reciprocated on a much smaller scale with things like parasites. By the time Europeans and Native Americans became trading partners 90% of the Native American population had died off due to earlier contact with the Spaniards (the pox blanket myth was just that). Stop for a moment and imagine that happening in America today. Imagine how the place would look after a hundred years or so. To later Europeans, all that cleared land (it didn't clear itself folks) and roadways just seemed like providence.  You must understand that archaeology was not the strong suit of early settlers.

     Now I said this story had an element of revenge and I will not disappoint. The Native Americans were able to get some measure of payback but not on purpose and it was most assuredly welcomed by the Europeans. What is this nefarious thing of which I speak? Corn. Yep, plain old corn and that was the problem. The corn was plain and for that very reason it caused death and illness for over 300 years. 

    Let's go back to the 1500's where a taste sensation were sweeping the European nations - corn. It was sweet, fairly easy to grow and it wasn't wheat. They just didn't have the variety of food stuffs that we enjoy today. Many Europeans ate just one thing all of the time; sometimes rice, mostly wheat. They weren't eating large turkey legs and shouting 'Huzzah!' at each other in their fine clothes. Meat was a luxury item most of the time. All of a sudden corn comes along and changes things. Those wonderful 'indians' had provided something more for the table albeit with a little early bioengineering. Somewhere in my head I imagine an aboriginal farmer holding up an ear of corn and screaming, "It's alive! Alive!" Corn was more than likely a grass type plant like wheat once was and through careful selection and mutation we got corn, glorious corn. Corn also gave a much greater yield than wheat so it was much easier to feed a family.

     The lower classes of Europe were happy and rejoiced in their new cuisine but then people started getting sick and dying. Sure people had fuller stomachs but they also had rotting skin, dementia and eventual death. It was so prevalent that the Italians gave it a name after the appearance of the afflicted skin - Pellagra which essentially means 'sour skin'.  I note here that I now wonder if 16th century Italians also got little blue pills from the Native Americans as well and that's how we got Viagra which, while sounding similar, is not really an affliction unless your symptoms last for more than 8 hours - please see a doctor.

    Corn is a perfectly fine food but it has a very low bioavailability which means it is not easily broken down by the body. The clever Native Americans always cooked their corn with lime juice which allowed the corn to become more bioavailable. By making the corn easier for the body to process, the Native Americans were getting the niacin they needed from their food. The Europeans decided that they really didn't need that silly Native American "Corn-ucopia!" or "To Serve Man" cookbooks when they adopted corn as a food staple. Thus, the Europeans died left and right or mumbled to themselves incoherently while smearing corn mush all over their naked bodies because they lacked niacin in their diet.

    In 1881 there were over 100,000 cases of Pellagra in Italy alone. Since there was no clever Ye Olde CDC to mobilize and study the cause of the disease people just kept on dying into the 1900's. An American doctor faced the disease epidemic that hit the south of these United States in the early 1900's. Hundreds of thousands were afflicted, mostly children. They were quarantined. But the good doctor accurately assessed that it was actually a dietary issue and not a communicable disease. No one would listen and he was ridiculed. Eventually, they did figure it all out (not until many people had died mind you) and that's why you don't hear some poor old soul at your office going around whining about 'Havin' the Pellagra' on a Monday morning. In some cases niacin is added to our food. It's actually good for you.

    So why have I written all of this? Well it would seem we did not learn our lesson very well. A number of years ago scientists were looking to get a better yield on wheat and make it more nutritious. Better wheat means less hungry people on the planet which is perfectly noble. Except we lost some bio diversity along the way in what we actually eat now. Today's wheat has the opposite problem of what corn once had for the Europeans - the damn stuff is fantastically bioavailable. It's incredibly nutritious. It's super wheat to the rescue! Well, um, there are side effects ya know like obesity, gluten sensitivity etc. The way most of the wheat we eat today was designed, cultured, modified or whatever is making us fat. Sure this is fantastic when you are in the middle of a famine but not so good when you are slapping a sandwich between your lips in your nice suburban home. And let's face it bread is our staple, it was at the bottom of our food pyramid. Wheat products are everywhere! So what to do? I don't think there are easy answers here. American wheat is highly prized in the world, especially in Italian pasta which is not a bad thing since such pasta uses durum wheat; very high in protein and not the 'common' wheat we consume in everything. It will be interesting to see if we take forever to react or come to terms with what medical research has found but until then I am trademarking the term Fatagra just in case.


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