You are corn.
The old saying goes "you are what you eat." In the United States, we are all corn.
Corn is in nearly everything we eat. It's in our soda, our meat, our chips, and our salad dressing. Walk down a supermarket aisle, pick a box off the shelf, and chances are corn is there. It can appear in one of highly-processed corn's numerous forms: corn meal, corn flour, corn oil, corn protein, corn starch, and, of course, high fructose corn syrup.
Michael Pollen, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, told NPR in 2003, "Our entire diet has been colonized by this one plant."
But the sovereignty of corn is only one example of the processed foods flooding the American market and, as a result, the American diet. The reign of processed foods have reached a point where ingredient lists on snack labels seem more appropriate for chemistry labs than our stomachs.
Which begs the question:
What are we eating, and what happens if we keep eating it?
"The doctor said to me, 'You are severely depleted.' And that was the turning point in my mind...What was I consuming that was making me sick?"
- Mary Lemmer, Founder of Foodscape
Mary Lemmer thought she was eating the right foods: boca burgers, granola bars, and cereals that advertised all the fiber, iron, and vitamins she could ever need. But when Lemmer fainted one night and woke up in the emergency room, she knew something was fatally wrong with what she was putting into her body.
"The doctor told me, 'you are severely depleted.' I was malnourished, essentially," Lemmer says. The so-called "healthy foods" she was eating were composed primarily of processed corn, soy, and wheat, then doused with a myriad of chemicals. This combination had destroyed Lemmer's digestive system. Her body was no longer able to intake any nutrients at all.
The words "severely depleted" have stuck with Lemmer ever since, and she's been on a mission to transform not just her own eating habits but others' as well. According to Lemmer, we need to eliminate heavily processed foods—the same ones that landed her in the emergency room—from our diet and return to our roots.
"We need to eat real, fresh food."
But what are processed foods?
Most foods we consume are processed in some shape or form, and not all are necessarily bad. Ground beef might be considered processed in that it has been run through a machine to achieve a certain texture, and kimchi can be considered processed in that it's cabbage that has been fermented and preserved over time. But there is a difference between food that has been mechanically processed and chemically processed.
Chemically processed foods, which have been altered "by additives such as flavors, flavor enhances, binders, colors, fillers, stabilizers, etc.," are the ones wreaking havoc on our bodies.
Here are 5 ways processed foods can harm you:
1. Sugar and Corn Syrup.
Since 2004, backlash against high fructose corn syrup has been fast and furious. But more recent studies have proven that it's no more or less harmful than any form of artificial sweetener. The true danger lies in excess.
Many processed foods like cereals and granola bars contain copious amounts of sugar. This added sugar can devastate your metabolism and leads to insulin resistance, high cholesterol, and fat accumulation in the liver and stomach.
Processed foods contain dozens of ingredients that are in no way or shape actual "food." Rather, they're chemicals that give the food certain "desirable qualities."
They are preservatives, colorants, flavors, and texturants. A majority of these additives are dubious at best. Some food dyes have even already been connected to cancer, hyperactivity, and allergic reactions.
3. Low nutrients
The issue with processed foods isn't just what's added to them, but also with what they're missing. When foods are processed, such as making brown rice into white rice, essential fibers and nutrients are lost, making it hard to properly digest the grain. This leads to spiked blood sugar levels because the fiber needed to slow the release of sugar into the blood stream has been destroyed.
Eating these "simple" carbs can lead to carb cravings a mere few hours later when blood sugar levels decline. This burst and sudden of blood sugar often results in overeating carbs.
4. Hyper-rewarding and addicting
Our brains are geared toward foods that are salty, sweet or fatty because we know these foods contain high amounts of energy and nutrients. But today, foods have been designed to be so intensely "rewarding" that they bypass the brain's defense against overconsumption.
Processed foods release dopamine, stimulating the same part of the brain that cocaine does. This constant dopamine stimulation can lead to uncontrollable food cravings and food addiction.
5. Takes less time and energy to digest
Processed foods are also engineered to be extremely easy to consume in large amounts. The proper term is "vanishing calorie density," which describes foods that trick the brain into thinking what you're eating has no calories. For instance, potato chips.
It also takes less energy to digest these processed foods, leading again to overeating and less calories burned while more are consumed.
"I realized that the way to improve our health is to eat real food. And how do you do that? You improve access to it and make it affordable for people."
- Mary Lemmer, Founder of Foodscape
The experience of cutting out processed foods completely after depending on them for so long and returning to raw, natural foods is what Lemmer thinks about often. And that revival has spurred her to create Foodscape, a startup that brings urban farming to empty backyards and empty lots in the city. She wants to literally bring the farm to the table.
Founded in 2014, Foodscape now boasts locations all over the country, from Michigan to ultra-cosmopolitan areas such as the Bay Area. Neighbors can pitch in together to grow small community gardens where they share the cost and the harvest of the foodscape every month.
"We're bringing people together through food," Lemmer says. "And when I see the variety of people who are interested, I become optimistic. I think, 'this really can work!'"
What will you eat today?
To learn more about Foodscape and how you can bring urban farming to your backyard, visit
Up next, Chapter Four: Eat Local
Meet Tim Page, founder of FEED Sonoma. After journeying through Hawaii and witnessing how the indigenous people connected with food and nature, Tim returned to California with a mission to re-connect us with what we eat and how we get it. He believes it is our duty to leave the earth better for future generations...more