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The CR4 Book Club

The CR4 Book Club is a forum to discuss fiction and non-fiction books that have science, engineering or technology thematic elements. The club will read and discuss several books a year. All CR4 users are invited to participate. Look out for book announcements and the ensuing discussions that follow, but beware of potential spoilers!

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Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Part 1)

Posted March 11, 2008 3:11 PM by Chris Leonard

Hi All. I spent most of last week recovering from a nasty bout of Bronchitis/walking pneumonia. While I'm pretty well recovered, it did force me to miss presenting CR4's book of the week for March 4th – The Omnivore's Dilemma. Before I get on to the review, my bout with illness made me rethink the Engineer's Book Club a bit. A week isn't long enough to read and otherwise prepare for a discussion, so I'm going to push entries back to every other Tuesday. The revised schedule is as follows:

(Reviewed) Feb 26: Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 by Nathaniel Philbrick

March 11: The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollen

March 25: Elephants on LSD and Other Bizarre Experiments by Alex Boese

April 1: The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion by Henry Darger

April 15: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

April 29: To Engineer is Human by Henry Petroski

With our housekeeping in order, on to Omnivore's Dilemma!

Subtitled A Natural History of Four Meals, author Pollan breaks the human approach to food into four story lines: Agribusiness, Large Scale Organic, Intensive Subsistence Farming, and Hunting & Gathering.

If you heard anything about this work, chances are it's related to the chapter on Agribusiness. This chapter, which traces the origin of a meal from McDonald's that Pollan eats with his family, focuses on two main ingredients in the American diet – corn and fossil fuels. Corn and its many derivative products make their way into much of the food we eat. Its prevalence is shocking. Aside from serving as a feed for animals that we eat and as a common starch staple; of the 45,000 items in a supermarket, more than a quarter contain corn. It's in everything from salad dressings, to ice cream, to beer. This may be surprising to some, but I received an crash course in college while living with a roommate who suffered with a corn allergy. Of all the derivative products, including cereals, batter coatings, oils, flavorings and additives, it is the sweetener High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) that gets the heaviest treatment.

While some reviewers seem to see Pollan as demonizing corn, Pamela Kaufman at Food & Wine Magazine states "Besides Stephen King, few other writers have made a corn field seem so sinister," I didn't get that. While Pollan is certainly interested in his subject matter, it's more matter-of-fact than ideological. One startling fact is that when HFCS made its' major foray into the American diet in 1982, the use of sugar did not decline at all. That doesn't speak to the "evil of corn" as much as it does to the American love of "sweet" and the desire of agribusiness to give it to us (some would argue force feed), even at the possible detriment to our health.

Corn also plays a major role in the processing of beef cattle. Cattle, which nature adapted to eat grasses and spend two years maturing into adulthood, butt up (no pun intended) against the American desire for cheap beef. Since open grazing land is not particularly available and two years is too much of an investment to work a cow into a side of beef, agribusiness has moved ahead using high energy corn to fatten up a cow in half the time. Of course, cattle haven't developed a gene to digest corn, so while growing quickly, they suffer from all forms of maladies during their short lives, from bloat to immune system issues. This has led to an intensive use of growth hormones and antibiotics to keep the cattle healthy enough to survive to adulthood. These products then make their way through the food chain into our bodies. But that's the rub. To keep beef inexpensive and able to keep up with American demand, the process has to run in this fashion, even though "agribeef" is generally less flavorful than its grass-fed cousin and contains denser fats and higher cholesterol. This is of course, an over simplification, but Pollan does a very good job of walking the reader through the process including interviews with vets and other workers in the field.

Underpinning the extensive use of corn as food staple, additive and animal feed is an intensive influx of fossil fuels. It may take as much as a third of a gallon of gas to grow a bushel of corn. This includes the use of vehicles to plant and harvest the grain, transportation of the crop to processing plants, fossil fuel derivatives that make up fertilizers and insecticides and the packaging used to contain them. A third of a gallon per bushel may not seem like much until you realize that the US produces 2.1 billion of bushels of corn yearly.

Tomorrow, I'll finish looking at Omnivore's Dilemma by going through the other three meals. For those who have read it:

  1. What was your take on Pollan's view of agribusiness?
  2. What did you find most surprising in this section?
  3. Overall, did you find this work heavy or even-handed?
  4. How am I doing so far?

- Chris

and as always, if you have a book you'd like to discuss, simply hit the "Contact Blog Admins" button in the blog description and tell me about it!

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#1

Re: Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Part 1

03/11/2008 4:04 PM

Chris,

What a great idea for a blog. Thanks for starting this.

While I doubt I'll be able to keep up with all the reading I have read The Omnivore's Dilemma and I also found the agribusiness section to be the most shocking. I was unaware of the extent to which corn is used in industrial food production. Reading this book has made me much more sensitive to the products I am buying. Does bread really need to have high fructose corn syrup? Do we really need to force feed our cattle corn only to have them suffer all kinds of sickness thus forcing us to feed them antibiotics?

For not knowing much about the business to begin with I thought Pollan's treatment of the subject was pretty even handed. I think the intention of the section WAS to shock the average reader who has little to no knowledge of the subject, but I don't think he presents a bias either way. He's just saying this is how it is, in case you didn't know...

...and in case you didn't know you are what you eat and that makes most of us corny

Julie

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#2

Re: Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Part 1)

03/12/2008 2:28 AM

that's scary.

i just looked at the ingredient list in a loaf of bread i bought yesterday and one item is labelled Invert Sugar Syrup ......... hmmmm

now i'm wondering if that's some kind of way to try and disguise High Fructose Corn Syrup.

anyone know if that's true?

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#3

Re: Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Part 1)

03/12/2008 11:00 AM

in case you didn't know, ceramic capacitors use cornflour as the dielectric. Really.

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#4

Re: Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Part 1

03/12/2008 11:39 AM

I haven't read this book, but am familiar with many of its concepts. That strikes me as part of what makes a book like this "successful"- when even those who haven't turned its pages know about its ideas.

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#5
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Re: Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Part 1

03/18/2008 9:24 PM

It is good to see an "official" reference to the overuse of corn. On a recent trip to the US (my first) I noted the taste of corn in almost everything I ate. I found food much too sweet and too salty to my taste. It must be hard for Diabetics in the States it is bad enough in Australia. Australian factory bread now contains "High Maize cornflour" they use it as a marketting tool as well calling it "Invisible fibre".

Anyone who thinks excessive corn consumption is a good thing should study the history of Norfolk Island where corn became the staple due to difficulty growing wheat. People became ill and died as a result.

In line with Chris' comment about the difficulty dodging corn for those who are allergic to it, we have a similar problem with wheat being widely used. Ceoliacs and other wheat intolerant people have to be very careful, especially when eating somewhere apart from at home.

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#6

Re: Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Part 1)

04/01/2008 7:39 AM

A documentary film, King Corn, that deals with many of these issues surrounding corn and our industrial food supply is airing on PBS on April 15. Check your local listings for times.

http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/kingcorn/

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#7
In reply to #3

Re: Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Part 1

04/01/2008 1:04 PM

Hi,

the ceramic is fired at temperatures above 1000°C in oxidising atmosphere.

So how should the cornflour survive this?

May be it is used as a binder in producing the "green" ceramic tape.

Other people use cellulose derived glues for this purpose.

RHABE

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