Humans have been processing food in a variety of ways for millions of years. But in this age of abundance, do we still need it?
A brief history of processed foods
It may be hard to believe, but the first instance of processed food was around 2 million years ago, when humans first placed a piece of meat over a fire and let it cook, increasing the availability of the nutrients and making it easier for our primarily herbivorous system to digest. It is believed that this ability to cook is what enabled us to develop such large brains so quickly.
Jump to 30,000BC, historians believe that humans ground the roots of ferns and cattails, mixed it with water, and baked it to create a type of bread that was energy dense and easy to transport.
Fast forward to 2,400BC. Historic records show the people of mesopotamia began to pickle their food to help extend it’s longevity, mainly used for long sea voyages. This early pickling simply involved immersing the food – ranging from cucumbers (the modern day pickle) to beef – in a salt water brine or vinegar solution which lowered the pH to a point that bacteria are unable to survive.
Similar to the brine, records from 850BC show that dry salt was added to meat and fish to help prevent them from decomposing so that they could be used at a later date. – Salt has the ability to bring the moisture out of the flesh and create an environment in which pathogens cannot grow. But even this only prolonged the edible time of meat from a few days to a few weeks.
This was the primary source of preserving meat and fish until the advent of tinned food and freezers in the 19th century.
Various processing methods were used throughout history to help keep humans alive; from the tinned foods given to soldiers in battles and the pickled meats and vegetables that sustained sailors on lengthy sea voyages, to the freeze dried food packs that help to put man on the moon.
But the food processing industry really took off during the second world war, huge factories were used to create foods that were easy to transport, had a long shelf life, and easy to prepare on the battlefield; which proved vital to the outcome of the war. Once the war was over, these huge facilities became redundant. But instead of closing down the factories, these companies decided to change their audience, from soldiers, to house wives, preying on the thought that house wives were tired of dedicating so much time to food preparation, so they introduced foods that were ready made and just needed to be warmed up.
On the back of the success of some of these companies, more and more products began to flood the shelves of local shops and the cupboards of homes. Unfortunately these new HIGHLY PROCESSED FOODS had a different agenda, to make money.
Now there are huge industries that spend millions each year on researching the perfect combination of artificial compounds to trick our brains into thinking that we are eating something nourishing and something we should eat more of (to learn more on this topic, read Human disposition to sugar, salt & fat).
When is processed food good?
In this modern age, processed food is seen as a pillar of obesity, heart disease, and a whole host of other undesirable chronic diseases. But it’s not all bad.
Living in harsh conditions
When living in an area that has limited natural resources, processed food become imperative for survival, let’s take Antartica as an example. Let’s imagine the residents of McMurdo Station – a research and tourist facility where scientists have been known to spend up to 2½ years at once. Due to the some winter months being totally absent of sunlight, and the temperatures rarely coming above freezing, it’s safe to assume that there is very little naturally growing there.
And so, through the winter months, these researchers rely on dried and frozen food – as well as a small amount of natural produce from their hydroponics plant – to sustain them.
Fermentation (or pickling) of some foods has actually been shown to improve the vitamin B content of the product. Although the amount of salt is very unhealthy and the World Health Organisation believe a lot of pickled foods contain carcinogenic (cancer forming) compounds as well as being associated with causing botulism – a rare disease that causes serious weakness of the muscles by inhibiting nerve function which, in severe cases, can lead to death – though this was only found in Alaska, where people would ferment whole fish, whale fins and other various fish parts in anaerobic containers.
Globalisation of food
100 years ago, it was unthinkable that within days you could have a ripe piece of fruit from the other side of the world, but now it is part of everyday life. This does however require a small amount of processing, because a ripe fruit is usually much softer and less likely to survive the journey, exotic fruits are picked before they are ripe and artificially ripened on the way to their final destination.
Sealing in the goodness
With the advancements in refrigeration techniques, we can now pick something fresh, freeze it – locking in the majority of the micronutrients that usually diminish over time – and keep it frozen until a later date when we are ready to use it. Meaning that we are able to now pick a strawberry at the end of summer and eat it almost fresh in the middle of winter.
When is processed food bad?
Due to the high amount of trans fat, sugar, salt and other compounds (that aren’t digested by humans) which are added to processed foods – such as chocolate bars, potato crisps, and ready meals – to give them their shelf life, texture and flavour; and the lack of micro- and phytonutrients that can be found in them. The majority of highly processed foods are way less healthy than their fresh counterparts, not to mention their role in causing chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and even some types of cancer (we will go into more detail about these in future articles.)
Because our food environment has changed so much, there is rarely ever any need to process foods to keep them edible for prolonged periods of time. Bar a few extreme examples, we are now able to find fresh produce in almost any part of the world within a few days. It may have been picked before it is ripest, but when you compare this to a product that has been packed with artificial flavours and preservatives to make it taste normal and give it an extra long shelf life, we start to realise that there is really no need for the processed world we are becoming so dependant on. So whenever available, we should start focusing on fresh produce that is available in our local area.
Ray, Frederick K. Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service (Report). Oklahoma State University. Retrieved 15 December 2010.
Burstall, Aubrey F. (1965). A History of Mechanical Engineering. The MIT Press.