How many times have you heard the phrase, “You are what you eat?
Granted, it is not usually meant to be taken literally. However, let’s do that anyway.
According to “The Omnivore’s Dilemma – A Natural History of Four Meals,” by Michael Pollan (also author of “In Defense of Food”), we are probably made of corn. I guess that explains all the corny jokes some us have a tendency to produce.
Pollan states that there are about 45,000 different items (based on SKU numbers) in the grocery store, with about 17,000 new ones each year. According to his research, more than a quarter of them have their origins in corn.
I know that this sounds impossible. If you think about corn, the first thing to come to mind is, well, plain old corn – fresh sweet corn on the cob, frozen corn, canned corn, creamed corn, and perhaps corn meal and corn muffins.
But that is just the tip of the iceberg. He goes much further in tracing the origins of our foods by looking at all of the animal products in the store and noting what they ate, and all of the processed foods in the store, and what each of their ingredients are made from.
So, a “short” list of foods from corn would also include chickens, pigs, turkeys, lambs, catfish, tilapia, farm-raised salmon; eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt and other milk products; nearly all of the soft drinks since they have been sweetened with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) starting in the 1980s; snack foods, breakfast cereals; beer; nearly all processed foods, due to containing modified and unmodified food starch, glucose syrup, maltodextrin, crystalline fructose, ascorbic acid, lecithin, dextrose, lactic acid, lysine, maltose, etc. Even the coffee whiteners, frozen yogurts, canned fruits, ketchup, candy, soups, snacks, and cake mixes include corn. The list is exhausting.
But that does not even include all of the non-food products such as tooth paste, cosmetics, disposable diapers, trash bags, the waxy coatings on cucumbers and boxes, and numerous other products.
OK, so we are made of corn. But this made me wonder, aren’t we, in the vegetable industry, also made of vegetables? Of course we are, though not nearly as large a component as corn.
The most eaten vegetable, on a per capita basis per year, is the potato (2009 data). We eat a very impressive 36 pounds every year of fresh potatoes. But wait, there’s more. From potato chips, we consume another 14 pounds, and some of us probably eat even more than that in french fries and other processed potato products!
Second place for fresh vegetables is a tie – onions and tomatoes, with a little over 19 pounds every year. However, we all eat a lot of tomato- and onion-containing foods that are not fresh as well.
Head lettuce is in fourth place with 17 pounds, followed by bell peppers at 9.4 pounds and corn at 9 pounds. In this instance, corn can be regarded as sweet corn, not field corn used in the items mentioned above. After that, the other fresh vegetables consumed drop off in poundage, however I should note that we also eat 71 pounds of vegetables frozen, 100 pounds canned, and 14 pounds dehydrated (not including potato chips).
Focus On Tomatoes
Now, let’s focus a little more on tomatoes. We eat about 19 pounds of fresh tomatoes, but in the U.S., we eat three times that amount in processed forms. This trend really took off in the 1980s as pizza, pasta, and salsa became more popular, and continues even now with the prevalence of salad bars and people eating a lot more salads at home.
In fact, 35% of all processed tomatoes are used in sauces, 18% in tomato paste, 17% as whole canned tomatoes, and 15% each for ketchup and tomato juice.
So, just where do greenhouse tomatoes fit in to this picture? Greenhouse grown tomatoes account for an impressive 37% of our fresh tomato consumption in the U.S. This has been a very steep climb since the early 1990s.