Minutiae, pages 1-84

When I began my rereading of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I began finding errors that didn’t seem significant enough to make the subject of a whole post. I still want to correct these points for the record, so I’ve decided to introduce a weekly series of posts about things that aren’t very important.

In addition to things that I can confirm to be erroneous, I’ll include points that seem questionable but for which I was unable to find a source. If you know more than I do about something, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. I’ll also mention things that I think could be expressed more clearly. I’ll generally avoid writing about grammatical errors.

With all that said, here’s this week’s list:

  • In communicating the pervasiveness of corn in the food supply, Pollan writes, “For modified or unmodified starch, for glucose syrup and maltodextrin, for crystalline fructose and ascorbic acid, for lecithin and dextrose, lactic acid and lysine, for maltose and HFCS, for MSG and polyols, for the caramel color and xanthan gum, read: corn” (18). Lecithin is very often derived from soy, rather than corn. I would even guess that most lecithin comes from soy; food-processing giant ADM states that their lecithin is from soy.
  • Pollan writes, “(Ninety-seven percent of what a corn plant is comes from the air, three percent from the ground.)” (22). I couldn’t find any verification for this point, but I think this must exclude the corn plant’s water mass.
  • Pollan writes,
  • The trick [C-4 carbon fixation] doesn’t yet, however, explain how a scientist could tell that a given carbon atom in a human bone owes its presence there to a photosynthetic event that occurred in the leaf of one kind of plant and not another–in corn, say, instead of lettuce or wheat. The scientist can do this because all carbon is not created equal. (22)

    He then goes on to explain that C-4 plants take in relatively more carbon 13 than C-3 plants do, and thus, “The higher the ratio of carbon 13 to carbon 12 in a person’s flesh, the more corn has been in his diet–or in the diet of the animals he or she ate” (22). This is very different from determining that a given atom comes from a particular kind of plant (as he suggests in the first quote). Scientists can determine the proportion of a person’s diet coming from corn, but this only allows them to estimate the probability that a particular atom came from corn.

  • Pollan asks, “How do you enlist so unlikely a creature–for the cow is an herbivore by nature–to help dispose of America’s corn surplus?” (66). I’m probably just being dense here and somehow misreading it, but isn’t an herbivore exactly the sort of animal you would expect to dispose of a surplus of some plant matter? It seems to me that cows are an unlikely choice to dispose of the corn surplus because they naturally eat grass, not because they are herbivores. I’d love for somebody to explain why this makes sense, though.

Have something to add? Did I get something wrong? Please post it in the comments.


  1. Molly said

    On your last point, you’re not being dense – Pollan is. Either he worded it badly or he’s just that dumb – at least, that’s how I read it, as well.

    And on the lecithin issue: in my completely unscientific observation, many manufacturers will put “soy lecithin” in the ingredient list if that is, in fact, what the ingredient is. I have never seen “corn lecithin” listed in any ingredient list, and I’m an obsessive label reader. I can’t recall ever seeing just “lecithin,” either, though I’m willing to admit that I might have overlooked that one.

  2. Adam Merberg said

    On the last point, I don’t think it shows Pollan to be dumb or dense. I think if he were to reread the sentence, he would agree that it didn’t make sense. To me, the question is, why didn’t he (or his proofreaders) catch that before publication? My guess, which will be further supported by similar errors in upcoming posts, is that it just wasn’t proofread very carefully.

    It’s also my experience that most lecithin is explicitly listed as “soy lecithin” on labels. I think I’ve seen “lecithin” on a few labels but never “corn lecithin.” Wikipedia says that soy and egg are the most common sources of lecithin. I think what Pollan did for that list of additives was comb a book of food additives, looking for entries that said they could be derived from corn. “A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives,” which Pollan will later cite, does list corn among several possible sources of lecithin. Nonetheless, it’s rather misleading to suggest (as Pollan does) that we should assume that our lecithin comes from corn.

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