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Claim: You are what you eat

April 19, 2010

Claim: You are what you eat

Whether you had bacon and eggs for breakfast, a glass of milk and potato chips with your lunch, or a cheeseburger and milkshake for dinner, chances are you ate a lot of corn today. How so? Farm animals in the United States chowed-down on 5.25 billion bushels – that’s 147 million tons – of feed corn in 2008. Their metabolisms convert corn’s simple carbohydrates into the complex animal proteins and fats that make up meat, dairy products and eggs. Americans get another hefty dose of corn from cornstarch, corn oil, and high fructose corn syrup. We consume three times more of the stuff than actual kernels of sweet corn.

Chemists can distinguish from a single hair follicle the percentage of our diet that originated from corn. Corn photosynthesizes carbohydrates four carbon atoms at a time, and it has a preference for carbon atoms that have more neutrons than those found in rice, wheat or potatoes. Neutrons are subatomic particles that reside in the nucleus of an atom, and sensitive instruments known as mass spectrometers can detect the abundance of neutrons in each atom. This distinctive isotopic marker confirms that approximately half of the carbon atoms in American bodies came directly or indirectly from corn.

Bottom line: You are what you eat, and most of what you eat started out as corn.

Justin Lytle

Assistant Professor of Chemistry

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