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King Corn

Documentary; Released: 2007
Featuring Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis;  Directed by Aaron Woolf

This King Corn review written by Mark Jeantheau, Grinning Planet.

DVD cover for King Corn Corn on the cob, canned corn, creamed corn, pop corn, corn bread, corn dogs, corn chips, corn taco shells, candy corn.... Well, except for that last one, we humans have come up with many inventive and delicious ways to eat corn. But there are some insidious ways we consume corn, most notably via meat consumption (where corn is heavily used as a feed grain) and corn sweeteners (which today dominate the non-diet part of the sweetener market). In scientific terms, we are largely what we eat, and we in the US owe a lot of our flesh, for better or for worse, to corn.

But what does it mean that we have become a part of the "corn matrix"? In King Corn, we find out. The storyline follows two college buddies, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, as they trace the trail of corn kernels that runs from agricultural extension offices through corn fields to silos and feed lots and processing plants.

The scale of the corn-related food economy in the US is hard for the average person to fathom. It gets easier as King Corn shows us the endless fields of 10-foot-tall corn plants; the tractors and huge pieces of farming equipment; the mountainous piles of harvested corn; the muddy feedlots with confined cows eating from troughs full of a feed mix that is mostly corn; the huge industrial-style buildings used to refine corn into sweetener.

To bring the material to life, Ian and Curt relocate to the heart of corn country (Iowa) to get first-hand experience in a variety of activities related to corn:

  • They apply for farming subsidies.
  • They spend a season growing an acre of corn, including driving tractors, plowing, seeding, spraying, and harvesting. (You may feel more inclined to buy organic after you see the chemical dosing the corn field gets.)
  • They even make a batch of high-fructose corn syrup. (Did you know that the process uses sulfuric acid?)
  • They talk to locals about the impact that industrial corn farming has had on farm families and farm towns.

The film also covers the ills of some corn-related aspects of our society:

  • It discusses problems with concentrated animal feeding operations and what an extended corn-based diet does to cattle—we have to have to give them drugs because the corn eventually makes the cows sick.
  • The risks of consuming sweetened drinks are explored—drinking 1 soda per day doubles the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
  • Corn is also noted as a poster child for the falling taste quality and nutritional values that plague today's industrialized farm products.

One amazing fact illuminated by King Corn is that in the US we're able to produce copious quantities of corn using very efficient, high-tech methods, and as consumers, we pay less money to feed ourselves as a percentage of our paycheck than any previous generation. But in this apparent land o' plenty, corn farmers cannot make a living without government subsidies. Given the general nutritional deficit of today's corn-based food system, what does all this say about how things are being run for us?

Skillfully directed by Aaron Woolf, King Corn gently explores its subject with a sense of balance. It generally comes off as agnostic about the good or bad of corn, but in the end, the film still gets to the complex truth of corn in a manner that is entertaining and educational. The style of King Corn makes it easy to watch: We get to learn alongside the two protagonists, rather than just seeing a stream of talking heads disgorging fact after fact. The film has a quirky sense of pacing, and the fun stop-motion animations and other graphical devices keep our eyelids in the fully up position. King Corn is a fine choice as a main course.


One of the interviews in King Corn is with a food scientist who explains that high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) wasn't used much until the 1970s because it was expensive to make. Improvements in extraction technology and a newly swelling corn harvest—a result of an intentional overproduction strategy instituted by the US Department of Agriculture—meant that HFCS was suddenly available, cheap, and looking for a market. At one point a spokeswoman for the sweetener industry proudly tells us that by the late 1980s, HFCS had already taken over 50% of the sweetener market.

Hmm, yes. Here's a delicious little diversion related to that fact. Some of you may remember the "New Coke fiasco" of the early 1980s. Coca-Cola dropped its original Coke formula and, with great fanfare, introduced New Coke. The stated marketing strategy was that New Coke would be better able to compete with the sweeter Pepsi taste. But New Coke was a flop, and in fairly short order, the company introduced Coke Classic, which they claimed was the same as the original Coke. But anyone who bothered to compare the ingredients on a can of Coke Classic to those on a can of hoarded original Coke would have seen that the sugar in the latter had been replaced with high-fructose corn syrup, which by then was the cheaper sweetener.

There were grumbles from the Coke-drinking hoi polloi that Coke Classic didn't seem to taste quite the same as original Coke—and it didn't, of course—but Coca-Cola's marketing blitz proclaiming that everything had returned to normal was eventually accepted by the public. Of course, one thing had definitely changed—Coke was now a more profitable product since the most expensive ingredient in the can, sugar, had been replaced with a cheaper substitute.

So, did Coca-Cola have the whole thing planned out all along—a stratagem in which they envisioned creation of a new product that could compete head-to-head with Pepsi and then an "intentional fiasco" that would provide cover for them to do an ingredient switcheroo on the original product, which they planned to keep all along? Not to mention all the free media attention! Or was it just a huge mistake on the part of Coca-Cola's research and marketing departments? You decide.

In any event, that was about the time I decided that drinking sodas was a pretty unhealthy thing to do anyway, and the changed taste of Coke Classic made it easy. Thank you, high-fructose corn syrup!

-- Mark Jeantheau, Grinning Planet founder, reformed Coke lover

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