Your environmental spotlight with Edna OBIRI: What do you know? Maize’R us!


We are what we eat, they say!

The fun facts

Did you know ‘Zea Mays’ is the scientific name for maize or corn, as we know and call it? Did you know maize is one of the world’s most widely produced and consumed cereal crop in the world? Did you know the United States of America is the largest producer of maize, leading the world production level at a whopping 366,287 tonnes? Did you know this amazing row crop is basically the driver of the US economy? Did you know that corn is not an original Ghanaian staple food, that it was brought to us probably from central Mexico in AD 1500? Did you know corn is the staple of the descendants of the Maya, living in Mexico, and has been there for nine thousand years? Did you know the descendants of the Maya still refer to themselves as ‘the corn people’? Well, those are the fun facts! Maize, as grown all over the United States of America, China, Brazil, and in small quantities in Ghana, etc., is in every meal today. Yes, you read right, every meal! Corn is everywhere – it’s in food and non-food items too. “We are basically corn walking”.

The ‘food’ corn

Now let’s consider what goes into the production of a simple product of say, chicken nuggets. The mere mention of chicken nuggets and the simplicity of the steps in a ‘home-made’ chicken nugget menu might make you think it’s just pieces of chicken breast bound by corn starch, right? Right! But here’s the catch – think of the ‘corn-fed chicken itself (call it the ‘corn-chicken’ as this chicken lives on nothing but mainly corn), the modified cornstarch made of ‘yours truly’ (corn) that is used in binding the crushed chicken meat, the chicken broth that is used basically to restore some of the flavours that are leached out during the processing of the chicken, the yellow corn flour used for the butter, the corn-oil and other preservatives made predominantly of corn. Interestingly, most of the ingredients it takes to make chicken nuggets can be derived from the almighty Zea Mays (corn).

The ‘animal’ corn

We are what we eat indeed, but I dare borrow the words of Michael Pollan: “We are what, what we eat eats, too”, and just about now, what we are is indeed ‘Zea mays (corn) walking’. Forget the ‘banku’ and the ‘kenkey’, the Ghanaian staples made mainly of corn. A trip to a typical animal feedlot in the US, for example, well informs us; corn is what feeds the bull that becomes the steak, the chicken that is fried or grilled, the enjoyable turkey tail and turkey pieces, the pig that becomes the pork, the lamb that becomes the lamb chops, even the catfish and the tilapia, not forgetting the salmon. Not forgetting the eggs that make our delicious omelette and scrambled eggs are all made from corn-fed birds and consequently, corn. The milk, cheese and yogurt, all come from dairy cows that are now typically fed with this amazing crop (corn). What then are we?

The ‘drinks’ corn

As a meat eater, after a good meal of a ‘medium well’ steak or a great ‘well-done’ charcoal grilled chicken (fed with the famous Zea mays), one is tempted to gulp a bottle or two of their famous fizzy drink or soda, say Coca-Cola (for the non-drinker) or a glass of wine (for one who loves their alcohol). Tell you what? Zea mays (corn) is right there with you; as Pollan puts it: “You are simply washing down your corn with gulps of more and more corn”. Certainly! Just as the miracle crop is in your meat or chicken or omelette or scrambled eggs, or your dessert, it is definitely in your drinks too.  Here’s the truth. According to Michael Pollan in his book ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’, since the 1980s, virtually all the sodas and most of the fruit drinks sold in the supermarket have been sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS); technically, after water, corn sweetener is their principal ingredient. Delightful huh?

The ‘advice’

Don’t take my word for it. In order to truly understand all these, please take your time to go through the ingredients on the bottle of your favourite drink or beer or wine or any processed food for that matter, and by some ‘miracle’, this wonder crop is present – you will find corn in the form of fructose or glucose syrup, or HFCS and what have you – so long as you know the scientific name to look out for; Zea mays is right there! Corn is in the creamer for your tea or coffee, the canned fruits for your dessert, and even the ketchup for your steak, and candies too. The mayonnaise and mustard are not left out, the hot dogs, the margarine, and all the various other salad dressings known are all corn-based. Tell you what? As I said, let’s not just think of what goes into the body only; let’s think about non-food items. From the toothpaste that greets your teeth in the morning and says goodbye to them at night to the cosmetic products that touch your body and hair, the disposable baby and adult diapers, the trash bags lining your bins at home and in the office, through to cleansers, the matches that light your fire for cooking, and the batteries that power your television remote controls and torchlights, right down to the shine on the cover of the magazine that catches your eye by the check-out counter in your favourite supermarket or bookstore: Zea mays is definitely present. Indeed, maize are us! Therefore, my fellow Ghanaian child, do not be too reluctant to claim your love for ‘banku’ or ‘kenkey’, for fear of being made fun of – for everyone, both the high and mighty, gets a taste of corn or maize or Zea Mays in one way or another! Wink-wink!

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