Though it might not seem like it, corn hides (in some shape or form) in nearly every product lining your pantry right now. Thanks to the 19th century Industrial Revolution and the 20th century advent of the Genetically Modified Organism (GMO), corn has become ubiquitous in American agriculture, and subsequently, in the American food system. This anomaly arose in part to hefty monetary contributions, or subsidies, dedicated to sustaining the corn business. So corn is subsidized by the government, and here's what that means for you.

A Corny History

Native to the Americas, it took some time for corn to be introduced to, and then adopted, by Europeans. During these days, corn was primarily eaten by poor farmers and prisoners because of its cheap price tag and high-density caloric profile. However, with the invention of three key technologies – the iron plow, the train, and the means to can – corn became the easiest crop to produce, to access, and to economically (but maybe not physiologically) consume. And if this wasn't enough to instigate #kingcorn, cue the GMO.

GM*C: Genetically Modified Corn

The purpose of genetic modification – the conjunction of genetic information and ingenious engineering – is to cultivate desirable traits in a manner that enhances said organism in some way. With corn, such traits to be isolated and reproduced include those that give rise to insect and pesticide resistance, sturdy structural profiles, and certain biochemical characteristics. As a result of this biotechnology, corn now exists in many different variations that appear at every level of our food system – from field to fork.

The Rise of the Corn-opoly

The federal government's subsidization of corn farming originally started due to the instability of the economy during and after the Great Depression. Via the instigation of paid-land diversion and minimum price supports, the federal government secured its hold on the corn industry, essentially likening farmers to pawns in an agricultural monopoly. This temporary fix evolved into an unbreakable policy that now compromises not only the pockets of its producers, but also the health of its consumers and the integrity of the environment.

In every CORNer of the food system

In addition to the grilled sweet corn we all know and love at our summer barbecues, corn's presence dominates across all levels of the food system. From feed unnaturally forced upon grass-eating animals that eventually end up on our plates, to ethanol in the engines of the plows that harvest the corn, to ingredients found in nearly all processed foods (looking at you high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, mono-sodium glutamate, and starch), each product contains a derivative of corn. So what does that mean for you and your corn-laden soda?

Corn is husking away at our health.

Though natural corn itself should not be deemed sole culprit of the nation's health issues, its plethora of associated derivatives certainly do not exhibit the same innocence. Take high fructose corn syrup (a form of the sugar fructose) as an example. Present in most process foods, this devil of a corn relative is metabolically processed differently than glucose and directly increases blood triglyceride levels. Combined with the effects of the many other not-so-natural constituents of corn derivatives, human health suffers in the form of chronic disease.

(H)Ear me out – corn can be good.

Along with existing as an important (and delicious) component to many traditional cuisines, corn does have its repertoire of benefits. Corn provides sufficient calories to support proper metabolism and contains vitamin A, B, E, fiber, and a variety of minerals. Additionally, corn's ability to be manipulated and transformed lends itself to many future innovative uses that have the potential to transcend the food system. So when you break it down (or keep it whole, in this case) corn ain't all that bad – and who can resist a taco adorned by a warm, homemade corn tortilla?

How to navigate the maize of corn products.

The issue of corn's destructive abilities is inextricable from other economic, environmental, and social issues ingrained in the American food system, making it difficult to resist and change. But there are a few ways we as consumers can stay with the good and away from the bad sides of corn. In my opinion, corn in its most natural form meets the three criteria of Michael Pollan's wise advise to "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." So, I hold my corn choices to this kernel of truth.

I recommend staying as close to the source of corn as possible – the less genetic transformations, processing plants, state boundaries, and layers of packaging it has to go through, the better. Keep your candy corn splurges to Halloween and consume processed foods in moderation. Engage your grill-master skills for some corn-on-the-cob at your next barbecue, break out your old cooking pot for DIY popcorn before your next movie night, and switch up your summer dinners with this Mexican corn salad – you really *corn not go wrong with wholesome, homemade foods.