King Corn is kind of like Super Size Me's little brother. It traces the pervasive influence of corn on modern America, including the obesity epidemic and the fact that Iowa is growing trillions of bushels of *non-edible* corn to continue receiving lucrative government subsidies. College buddies Ian and Curt, both from the east coast, discover that they both had distant relatives from the same small town of Greene, Iowa. Ian and Curt decide to go to Iowa and plant one acre of corn, following it through its lifecycle, including where it goes after the harvest.
The film starts off slowly as the reasons for the trip are explained. The prerequisite talking heads introduce some scary factoids about how Americans are literally made of corn; if you do a hair analysis, it's like a diet diary, and the vast majority of the American diet (corn-fed beef, fast foods and processed foods) contains corn derivatives. Much of the corn we ingest is in the guise of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a cheaper alternative to sugar that is produced via a scary chemical conversion involving several toxic acids. HFCS has been directly linked to the current obesity crisis and its impact on Type II Diabetes (the body processes HFCS differently from table sugar). Prior to the 1970s, hardly any company used HFCS due to its high cost. But after then-Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz did away with the old New Deal market control policies in favor of rapid expansion in 1973, there was a constant surplus of cheap (and non-edible) corn, fueling the rapid expansion of the corn syrup industry. Here's a quick test: walk into any convenience store and count how many items contain corn, specifically corn syrup. The list includes obvious choices like soda and candy, but you'll also find HFCS in deli meats, breads, ketchup, pickle relish, spaghetti sauce, and cough syrup. Oh yes, and one main variety of corn grown in Iowa (Liberty) is genetically modified, as is at least one ingredient in HFCS manufacturing.
Corn production geared towards ethanol is briefly mentioned, but the majority of the focus in King Corn is on the impact of non-edible corn on the nation's food supply. In this respect, it's kind of a gentler version of Supersize Me; there's no shock value for the most part. Also mentioned is the disastrous consequence of converting cattle from grazing animals to force-fed confined ones. Cattle normally forage for a plant-based diet, but it is far more profitable to bring them up to market weight by forcing them to stand still and eat continuously. In addition, the acids present in corn cause deadly ulcers for the cows, who are slaughtered before developing acidosis. The end result is that 70% of the antibiotics in the US are used on livestock (antibiotics combat both the acidosis and the infections resulting from confinement). Literally everything at McDonald's contains corn: your hamburger is corn-fed, the bun contains HFCS, your soda contains HFCS, the French fries are fried in corn (or soybean) oil, and your ketchup and pickle contains HFCS. Ditto for most vending machine foods, frozen dinners, and anything you don't make from scratch. It's extremely difficult to escape buying foods containing corn, since a variety of pseudonyms are used, including baking powder, caramel color, dextrose, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, stearic acid, and vanilla, making it a nightmare for anyone with corn allergies.
Perhaps the most effective element is that of nostalgia. Ian and Curt also take time to find their long-lost relatives in Greene, and to reflect on the rapid changes in our recently agrarian society that have forced farmers to maintain massive farms harvesting non-edible corn. In other words, the farmer can't even feed himself with what he's growing. Without the hefty government subsidies, such large-scale corn operations would be out of business. They interview various farmers and ranchers who are disgusted with the system, but who have little real choice (one farmer says flatly, "We're growing crap!"). We're shown the evolution of farming equipment and of the family farm itself as a quaint reminder of the past; there are nostalgic shots of Main Street and hometown parades, quiet diners and local bars.
Ian and Curt's visual style is playful; the charts and graphs are hand-drawn, interspersed with stop-motion plastic farm toys to get the point across (and the dancing corn on the map of the US was great, too). The quirky soundtrack is a standout as well. DVD extras include some outtakes, a music video, bios, and some great 1950s-style educational clips. King Corn is a thought-provoking look at the old adage "You are what you eat," and boy, it's scary.