Posted by: Avivah | December 18, 2009

King Corn – a review

A big part of why my kids are happy to eat healthfully is that they buy into the concept of food quality mattering when it comes to building up the body.  (It doesn’t hurt that our food is delicious!)  I regularly share with them things I learn about health and nutrition, and when I heard about this dvd titled King Corn, I thought it would be interesting to watch with the kids and reserved a copy from the library.  Yes, my kids really find this stuff fascinating – even ds2 and ds3 sat through it!

King Korn is an entertaining documentary of the journey of two young men who set off to learn about the growing and processing of corn.  It begins when they have their hair analyzed and find out that the carbon is their body is mostly made up of corn!   So they temporarily move to Iowa to grow an acre of their own corn and follow the ‘journey’ of their corn.

After finding a farmer who agrees to let them rent an acre of land from him, we watch them follow typical farming guidelines.  They begin by preparing the soil with chemical fertilizers, and soon after plant the acre (it takes just 18  minutes to sow the entire area).  When they spray for weeds, we learn that all corn would be killed by this pesticide called Liberty, except for this particular kind of corn (Liberty Link) that was developed to withstand Liberty.  It’s one thing to know your food is liberally sprayed with pesticides, it’s another to watch it!

Nowadays, the average is 180 bushels of corn to an acre, and 200 bushels isn’t uncommon.  That’s an incredible thing.  This is possible not because each plant produces more, but because they’ve been bred to be able to live much closer together. As I heard the discussion about current crop yields , a scene from the Little House on the Prairie books came to mind, when Pa was exultant that he was expecting an incredible yield of forty bushels of grain to an acre.  There was an explanation about current farm subsidy practices, and it becomes clear how crucial this is to farmers, since without it they’d literally be losing money even when getting record yields.  Farm subsidies explain the seemingly wasteful overproduction of corn.

Once the corn was ready to be harvested they tasted their crop, only to be taken aback by how unappetizing it was.   No surprise there, though- after all, it was bred to be able to grow in crowded conditions and withstand powerful herbicides, not for flavor or nutritional value.

What happens to corn once its harvested?  Ten percent is used for ethanol, and the other ninety percent is split 50/40 towards the corn sweetener industry and for cattle feed. It becomes clear that with the mega production of corn that exists in the US today, industries have developed which find ways to use it all.

One of these is the industrialized beef market, so they went into the cattle industry to see how corn is used there.  I thought this was a particularly important part of the film, since most people have no idea that corn is an unnatural and unhealthy food for cows that causes them to become disease ridden.  (I only learned about this a few years ago when I researched raw milk – what cows eat affects the quality of their milk.  Corn sounds like a healthy food for cows, doesn’t it?)  Once cows are brought into a feedlot, they are fed a diet that is almost exclusively corn, which is effective in fattening them quickly for market.  It also makes them very sick.  Don’t you think it’s obvious that just like the milk quality is affected by how a cow is fed, the quality of their meat would be affected?

Cows and calves of a local cattle rancher who sells her young calves to the feedlots are shown, and the difference between the young cows with their mothers allowed to graze and roam in grassy pastures is very stark when contrasted with the reality of feedlot cattle.  Enough said.

They then attempt to visit a factory that produces corn syrup but when they were denied permission, they got a hugely technical explanation, then found a recipe, and made it themselves.   I’m a do it yourself kind of woman, but corn syrup wouldn’t be on my list of projects!  Corn syrup is ubiquitous to our food supply since it ends up in just about every processed food on the shelf.  (Oh, by the way, here’s a couple of spoofs that the makers of King Corn did on the ads the corn refiner’s association recently put out to try to spin that their product is a healthy one.  Very humorous.)

Something I liked about this presentation is that though the producers clearly had an aim in mind when producing this, they let those they interviewed do the talking.  We see a corn farmer emphatically saying that the corn they’re all growing is low quality and he wouldn’t eat it.  We see the head of the feedlot explaining that what Americans value most is cheap food, and that’s what they’re given, that if they were clamoring for grass fed beef, that’s what the industry would produce (and I believe he was sincere and that this is true).  We see the pathetic explanations of the corn syrup representative as to why visitors aren’t allowed in the factory to view the process of how corn becomes corn syrup (we were laughing at how ridiculous the explanations sounded).  We see a farmer who can’t keep getting bigger and bigger forced to sell his home and farm after generations.

As they go through this process, the two young men become increasingly uncomfortable about their role in growing corn that will support these industries.  In the end, they buy the acre that they rented, and the final scene shows them playing baseball together in the acre covered with grass, with acres of corn all around them.  At first I didn’t comprehend the message of this, but then understood that the point was that they chose to leave it unfarmed, ie, not contributing to the corn industry.

Though very little of this was novel to me, for my family it was, and I felt King Corn was a valuable film to watch.   A short time before we watched this I said to my husband, “The more I know about food and the way it’s produced, the more frustrating I find it to shop and the less I want to eat any of it.”  He didn’t share that feeling and didn’t really get where I was coming from, until he watched this film.

Something all my kids wondered about was how the producers of the film continued eating fast food after learning all they did!  They also asked me if I thought that our family would be classified as consisting of corn carbon if our hair was analyzed.  I told them I wasn’t sure.  While we eat virtually no processed food, no corn oil, and no corn syrup, we do sometimes use cornmeal and eat frozen/fresh corn.  That, I think is probably less of a problem than the animal products we eat – corn fed beef, corn fed poultry (even organic chickens often display ‘grain fed’ or ‘corn fed’ on the labels), eggs from poultry that is corn fed (we try to get pastured eggs but often use regular eggs), dairy products from cows that are corn fed….

The unfortunate reality is that it takes a lot of education and effort nowadays to eat a decent diet.  Getting information like this helps with the education component!

Next on my list is Food Inc – I reserved it weeks ago and had 36 people in line ahead of me (that’s a record; I reserve books all the time and rarely have more than a couple of people waiting for something); I’m down to only about 22 people ahead of me now so hopefully I’ll get it in a few more weeks. 🙂

(This post is part of Real Food Wednesdays and Fight Back Fridays.)




  1. We just watched that movie too, and really enjoyed it! Also, it was interesting that they continued to eat fast food; so many people we know have this information, and do nothing about it; that’s why the industries don’t change! The first step is education, but the second is action. Without using the information you are given knowledge is just wasted! hmmm.

  2. Kosher grass-fed beef:

    Not surprisingly, it’s also really really yummy.

    They’re currently installing new machinery and therefore not adding to inventory, so the current inventory is really really low — but at the same time, they’re running a shipping sale through the end of December — 3 day UPS ground for $9.95, any size order. (This is a HUGE savings, and even with 3-day, the meat is still frozen completely solid when it arrives.)

    • thanks for the info, Miriam, I made an order!

  3. Thanks for sharing this site, Miriam – I wasn’t aware of it, and their prices seem reasonable (not cheap, but reasonable!) for high quality kosher meat. I’ve just emailed the company to find out if their meat is fully grass fed – the site says their cattle receives vegetarian feed and to me this implies that they aren’t exclusively pastured. I’ll share with everyone when I receive an answer.

    With kosher ground beef in the regular supermarket 3.99 lb, it would be amazing deal to pay the same thing for pastured meat! The only other source I know of charges almost $10 per lb of ground meat (totally grass fed), which is way out of my budget.

    I’m so glad to see the kosher market expanding in this area – that’s great news!

    • Here’s the response I received from their customer service rep:”They are grass fed and then grain finished which means they are given corn and alfalfa. They are also very humanely raised, meaning that the animals are grass fed and bedded down at night as well as shielded from inclement weather.”

  4. Thanks, I was just about to ask about it being grain-fed. I think Wise products are also grass-fed and grain finished, so more companies are competing, which will hopefully be good for us consumers.

    I never heard of King Corn, but will have to check it out! Sounds like a lot of info f rom the book, Omnivore’s Dilemma.

    We’re waiting for Food Inc. here too!

    The more I learn about food and where it comes from, the less I want to eat and shop, and we eat very similarly to your family, Avivah.

    • Their inspiration to do the film seems to have been in large part due to the work of Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma (a great book for anyone who hasn’t read it), and he’s featured in the film as well.

  5. i just put in an order with golden west glatt. i’ll let you know what we think! thanks for the cool movie review- i love being able to watch things as a family, especially when the kids will learn without realizeng that they are… have a great shabbos! -julie

    • Isn’t the flexibility of homeschooling great? I classify a program like this history and science, and the kids just think it’s fun!

  6. We drove from Denver to Ontario, Wisconsin this summer. Once we were 30 minutes outside of the city, the only crop we saw growing the entire way was corn! It really shocked us all. The only crop diversity we encountered was among our Amish neighbors in Wisconsion, although they also grew plenty of corn. But it was primarily to feed animals.

  7. This movie is definitely a “must-see” for Real Foodies. Thankfully, there are a lot of good movies out similar to this now. (Fresh, Food Fight, Fat Head, Food, Inc., etc.)

    Thanks for joining in on Real Food Wednesdays!


  8. […] fed beef at a great price! Back in December, I shared my thoughts about the King Corn documentary, and in the comments section (where lots of good information is shared but most people miss seeing […]

  9. […] might want to see it while the offer is still available.  So far, it looks like the same genre as King Korn and Food, Inc – a real food […]

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