Tom Ross: (Cool) Whip it good

Toppings and the great food chain

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Have you ever taken a can of Reddi-Wip, flipped off the cap and squirted the contents directly into your mouth? I was tempted Friday morning, but thought better of it and put the can back in the fridge.

Bleary-eyed, I had opened the refrigerator door at 5:15 a.m. and was surprised to discover no fewer than four containers of processed "whipped cream" product in my ice box. In addition to the red-and-white can of Reddi-Wip, there were two containers of Cool Whip Lite and one container of Cool Whip Chocolate.

"Why on Earth do two people need four containers of whipped cream?" I muttered to myself. Suddenly, the light bulb went on. "I just might be in for a fun-filled weekend."

Then I read the list of ingredients on the packages.

"Aha!"

Like so many of the food products churned out by the American industrial food chain, Cool Whip is made mostly of corn. Surprisingly, for a product with such a funky name, Reddi-Wip is actually made from dairy products.

I've been reading "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals" by Michael Pollan, and I have to say I've become a little obsessed with it.

The book describes in fascinating detail how the industrialization of the Midwest Corn Belt has changed the landscape of America and drastically altered the food we consume.

So, as soon as Snuggle Bunny came out of the bedroom Friday morning, I confronted her about the four containers of industrial processed whipped cream products in the fridge.

She abruptly let me know that not only was I not about to experience a special whipped cream weekend, but also made it crystal clear that I might have an unpleasant weekend if I didn't stop yapping about the industrial food chain.

I guess I've spent a little too much of the last week filling her in on the gruesome details of pork production and the nasty stuff that is fed to cattle in feed lots. It's just that I'm really fascinated by this book. It bares the details of how American consumers have been led to consume tons of processed food by conglomerates bent on creating value out of a super-cheap government-subsidized commodity like corn.

A surprising number of the processed foods you and I eat are packed with corn starch or high-fructose corn syrup and other corn products you can't even recognize as corn. Most of the meat we consume is fed on corn, including beef cattle, which must be heavily medicated to allow their stomachs to even digest corn.

Pollan says that if we are what we eat, we're all giant ears of corn walking around the planet - or words to that effect.

Maybe my fascination with "The Omnivore's Dilemma" is attributable to my youth spent on the northern edge of the cornbelt. I devoted one summer in high school to working at Blaney Farms as a soldier in the army of hybrid seed corn production. Along with 11 other teenagers, I worked a seven-hour shift riding around on a giant tractor on stilts. Our job was to reach out and pull the tassels off of corn stalks so that only the pollen of another variety of corn could pollinate the seeds. It was monotonous work, but it was great to be outside on Wisconsin summer mornings.

So, what's that got to do with Cool Whip? Well, two of the first three ingredients in the non-dairy topping come from corn - corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup.

High-fructose corn syrup is a nasty substitute for sucrose (sugar) that tends to pack fat on the human frame. It's also the most profitable food product created from corn, according to Pollan. One bushel of corn yields 33 pounds of fructose, he writes, and the sweetener accounts for 530 million bushels of corn a year.

Fortunately for those of us who satisfy our dessert cravings with little cups of fat-free pudding topped with Cool Whip, there really isn't very much high-fructose corn syrup in Cool Whip Lite. Two tablespoons contain a single gram of sugar and a single gram of fat, according to the label.

Remarkably, the first two ingredients in Reddi-Wip are cream and nonfat milk. Corn, in the form of corn syrup, doesn't show up until ingredient No. 3. And Reddi-Wip contains no more fat and sugar than Cool Whip Lite.

So, this holiday season, I say indulge in all of the processed whipped cream food you care for, even though it's part of the great corn conspiracy being foisted on the American people.

"The Omnivore's Dilemma" is published by The Penguin Press, and I recommend it for holiday giving. However, I might suggest that on the gift card, you write, "Do not open until after Christmas dinner."

- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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