Why we’ve decided to stop buying food from supermarkets…

It took me some time to realise just how unhealthy the food I’ve consumed for most of my life actually is – yeah, you know the food bought in supermarkets, not even fast-food and junk-food. I’ve been a bit naive this whole time but I think I’m now getting a better understanding of it all.

I want to share with you just a few of the things I’ve discovered, but please research for yourself what you are eating too.

Recently a network of French associations released a study, and its results are pretty scary – yet concern anyone living in an industrialised society. The aim of the study was to understand what amounts of chemicals residues are present in a 10 years old child daily meals. They bought non-organic food and drinks in supermarkets, prepared three meals and one snack and asked different independent laboratories to analyse the content of each meal. It is important to note that the meals were prepared based on the recommendations of the Ministry of Health, and were fairly balanced (including 5 fruits and veg, water, reasonable amounts of sweet/salty aliments, etc…).

The results are frightening – judge by yourself: they found 128 chemical residues, representing 81 different sorts of chemical substances and including 36 pesticides. More worryingly, they found 47 different suspected carcinogenic substances – including 5 proven carcinogenic ones, and 37 endocrine disruptor substances! It’s not surprising that cancer is the second cause of children’s death in France after accidents!…

Said otherwise, one cannot escape health issues if one eats industrialised processed food – even if one follows the recommendations of the Ministry of Health.

Now, put this study in perspective with other news reports: last August, half a billion eggs have been recalled in the US following a nationwide investigation of a salmonella outbreak – at the time of writing the news article, more than 1,000 people had already been sickened and the toll of illnesses was expected to increase; In the UK, the government has rejected a ban on cloned meat despite health and animal welfare fears; A leaked document shows that the US Environmental Protection Agency allowed bee-toxic pesticide despite own scientists’ red flags;

In the UK, the “fresh” apple you pluck off the shelf of a supermarket could be up to a year old and lamb chops that look so succulent may have been butchered up to four months ago; In the UK, the number of people admitted to hospital for obesity rose by nearly 60 per cent between 2007/08 and 2008/09; Human life expectancy has reduced for the first time in 25 years in the US – among others due to “the US’ broken food system, overuse of chemical pesticides, and dependence on pharmaceutical drugs”. But as the newspaper Le Monde explains “this information is not really a surprise. For many years now, different experts have been warning that poor living conditions and diet in industrialised countries lead to the capping, and even reducing, of life expectancy”.

This reminds us of the well-known saying ‘you are what you eat’…

The common thread in these different problems is industrialised processed food. People often hear of health issues related to such food, but accept them as a risk that doesn’t supersede the convenience of it all. Maybe we need to step back a bit and reflect…

So, what is industrialised processed food, and what are its benefits and drawbacks?

Think about it like this… if it’s produced on a mass-scale it’s industrialised. If, in addition, it comes in a box, can, bag or carton or any packaging, it’s industrially processed.

Food processing dates back to the prehistoric ages when crude processing incorporated slaughtering, fermenting, sun drying, preserving with salt, and various types of cooking (such as roasting, smoking, steaming, and oven baking). Salt-preservation was especially common for foods that constituted warrior and sailors’ diets, up until the introduction of canning methods. These tried and tested processing techniques remained essentially the same until the advent of the industrial revolution.

Industrialised food has brought tremendous benefits to our societies, including variety, convenience, but also contributed in reducing the average amount of our income spent on food from 25% in 1930 to 9% nowadays (well for the US – comparatively, people still spend 50% of their income on food in Azerbaijan…). In addition, it increases seasonal availability of many foods, enables transportation of delicate perishable foods across long distances. It also makes many kinds of foods safe to eat by de-activating spoilage and pathogenic micro-organisms. As Laudan has argued “where modern food became available, people grew taller and stronger and lived longer.”

But industrialised processed food also has its drawbacks. And they are numerous… Processing food at massive scales contributes to environmental degradation; animal suffering (think of the factory farms); dismantlement of communities (supermarkets are just giant warehouses, not really the place where one interacts meaningfully); but also in health deterioration. These health risks include obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, food borne infections like e-coli as well as unknown effects of food additives.

In general, fresh food that has not been processed other than by washing and simple kitchen preparation, may be expected to contain a higher proportion of naturally-occurring vitamins, fibre and minerals than an equivalent product processed by the food industry. Vitamin C, for example, is destroyed by heat and therefore canned fruits have a lower content of vitamin C than fresh ones. Often nutrients are deliberately removed from food in an effort to improve its longevity, appearance, or taste. Food processing can introduce hazards not encountered with naturally-occurring products. Processed foods often include food additives, such as flavourings, sweeteners, preservatives, stabilisers and texture-enhancing agents, which may have little or no nutritive value, or be unhealthy. Also, preservatives added or created during processing to extend the ‘shelf-life’ of commercially-available products, such as nitrites or sulphites, may cause adverse health effects.

According to the associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard David Ludwig, “in the last 50 years, the extent of processing has increased so much that prepared breakfast cereals – even without added sugar – act exactly like sugar itself … As far as our hormones and metabolism are concerned, there’s no difference between a bowl of unsweetened corn flakes and a bowl of table sugar.”

While the United Nations World Health Organization has said that processed foods are to blame for the sharp rise in obesity (and chronic diseases) seen around the world, it’s also worthwhile recalling that, in the US, the three first causes of death are cardiovascular diseases, cancer and respiratory diseases – partially, sometimes wholly, related to food.

To give you an idea, the US Food and Drug Administration maintains a list of over 3,000 chemicals that are added to the processed food supply. These compounds do various things to food. They add color, stabilize, textures, preserve, sweeten, thicken, add flavour, soften, emulsify and more. Usually, food additives that have been approved as safe for human consumption by institutional ‘authorities’ are allowed for use in food products, but at specified levels – the problem lies in the mix of these different substances: even if each additive respects the ‘safe’ standards, it is more often than not consumed among many others as underscored by the study introduced above, eventually creating a dangerous cocktail. And honestly, even if you read the labels when buying your food in supermarkets, do you really understand what they actually mean? Do you know what impact of a daily and mixed consumption has on our health? CJG and I don’t (by this way, we found this and this user-friendly tables pretty useful).

But we don’t want to play with fire anymore, so we are gradually moving out of industrialised food – including from the most basic store bought products like butter, pasta sauces, yoghurt, oil, bread, curry pastes and more. We now produce our own food from natural products, and gosh, it’s so much tastier! 🙂 We are happy to share in this blog some easy recipes on how to make your own natural cheese, butter, yoghurt, bread, etc at home . We’ll also soon write a post that provides a concrete perspective on how we replaced the food purchased from the supermarkets, so stay tuned!…

UPDATE1: Here’s the promised following post (Who is the authority that said Coca-cola was safer to drink than raw milk?)

UPDATE 2: We’ve just stumbled upon this post from Dr Hyman (How eating at home could save your life), and we urge you to read it. Couldn’t have been said better!



  • cjg

    It’s worth noting that processing food isn’t just about the chemicals that are added. It’s important to understand how different processes affect the molecular structure of your food and how your body then reacts to that. Two examples:

    Extraction is a process used to get oil out of seeds, fruits and nuts. Traditionally this was achieved by cold pressing them but these days they are heated, squeezed at high pressure and treated with a solvent which is then boiled off. So now you have a product likely to create free radicals, has destroyed antioxidants and will contain traces of chemicals…

    Consider hydrogenation which is the process used to create margarine… made from cheap oils already rancid from extraction, the product is then mixed with tiny metal particles and put through a high pressure and temperature reactor. It is then mixed with emulsifiers and starch for consistency, bleached to remove the grey colour, dyed and strong flavours added to resemble butter. The molecular restructure makes it a trans fat.


    jsr Reply:

    Yep, excellent precision indeed – thanks!


  • Janet Camp

    Interesting, til you get to Dr. Hyman, a complete quack. All docs will tell you to eat mostly unprocessed food–this is common sense. Hyman goes way beyond basic advice into the world of quackademic woo.


    Making Sense of Things Reply:

    Thanks Janet. We actually don’t know much about Dr Hyman (as we wrote, we simply stumbled upon his post), but that’s good to know. We’d however be happy to hear more from you: do you for instance have any links or information you can share? Whoever Dr Hyman is, we still find the content of this particular post worth reading.


    Janet Camp Reply:

    Nice to hear back from you!

    Here is a start on what I think of Mark Hyman, MD:


    I do not like doctors who co opt the idea that so called “mainstream” doctors are not interested in the diets and exercise habits of their patients. I find that Hyman, et. al., take basic common sense (eat well, move around), add a big dose of “evil pharma”, mix in some “detox” and use it to sell their own brands of supplements. People who eat the way you describe are not in need of supplements, let alone “detoxing”. Even people who fall short of your self reliance are not in need of the kind of nonsense peddled by Hyman (and many others, sadly). They would do much better to read Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan instead of looking for some shortcut to weight loss or a “magic nutrient” that will cure everything known to ail mankind.

    Look through the blog I have linked to. It’s written by a group of dedicated medical professionals who work very hard to debunk the modern day snake oil peddlers. you could also take a look at Quackwatch.org and subscribe to the free newsletter Dr. Barrett puts out. These doctors have excellent critical thinking skills and I have learned a great deal from them. It’s good to have a reliable source to go to when I read something that doesn’t ring true. I can’t interpret every study I come across, but I can rely on Science Based Medicine to filter the deluge for me. One of my favorite contributors is Dr. David Gorski who is an MD and a PhD, who does cancer research. Being a doctor and a scientist gives him a very broad field of knowledge to bring to the table.

    Eating real food, not too much, mostly plants remains the best advice (Michael Pollan) I’ve seen. Marion Nestle says not to buy things that have more than five ingredients and I think that’s good advice as well, although sometimes (yogurt), five is too many, especially when one of them is sugar/sweetener.

    I have read all of Marion Nestle’s books and find her advice simple, straightforward, and based on solid science. Some who visit the blog mistake her for an “alternative” sort, but they need to read her books and go through her posts which are indexed on the right hand side of the blog. She advocated for public health, not food fads.

    I will take another look at your site as well to see if I can pick up some tips!


    Making Sense of Things Reply:

    Janet, that’s very kind of you to respond in such details! In addition, what you say is interesting and indeed very relevant. We are all the more sensitive to your arguments that we too, prefer science based medicine rather than ‘quackacademic’ as you put it.
    Anyway, you’ve given us some interesting homework here ;-). We’ve had a quick glance at the ‘Science Based Medicine’ website and it looks like we’ll spend more time reading its articles…
    So thanks for your input then! 🙂

  • Janet Camp

    Thanks for reading. I’m always happy to spread good science based information. This is why I enjoy Marion Nestle’s work as well. She has a very practical approach, but always based on solid evidence.

    I’ll put this site on my list and visit again.


    Making Sense of Things Reply:

    Absolutely right, Marion Nestle’s work is indeed worth keeping up with!

    Anyway, it’s been a pleasure exchanging with you and thanks for putting our blog on your list 🙂


  • Kammy

    Well said! We moved into a 70% raw food diet (exceptions would be rarely eaten meats, nuts and seeds that we could not find raw. While I am diabetic, I do not have to take meds now because my blood sugar is in the normal ranges.

    Our shopping habits have definitely changed. We live in South Korea teaching here and we have found the fruit, veggie and fish markets that the restaurants buy from. We also have a restaurant supply store that carries a lot of spices, and raw and dry roasted nuts that we eat regularly. Our shopping takes literally 5 minutes in each warehouse and costs us half of what we would pay in a grocery store.

    Koreans traditionally eat more healthfully than Americans – which accounts for why they are so thin, but they are getting suckered into the grocery store mentality and buying crap too so people are plumping up.

    Take a look at my website. The pictures scrolling at the top are the places that I shop.



    Making Sense of Things Reply:

    Thank you Kammy for sharing your experience with us – and also congratulations for reducing your blood sugar through natural ways. I often find easier to eat natural (and tastier!) food in non-western countries too.
    I wish more people understood the importance of eating well…


    Joycelyn Adams Reply:

    Hello, I enjoyed reading your post. I am going to be teaching overseas as well and I was curious how my organic diet would work out. I am allergic to sulfites and try to avoid anything processed. I am happy to hear that there will be good choices of food. I currently buy from my local whole foods market as I don’t have space for a garden.


    Making Sense of Things Reply:

    Hi Jocyelyn.. sorry for the late reply but we’ve been travelling so much lately and have just arrived in Bolivia, so I really understand what you mean about trying to eat an organic diet whilst travelling. What I try to do is ask around, talk to market holders, ask where their food comes from, how it was produced, etc. It’s really quite fun to build these connections and have these conversations too! I have to start all over again here in La Paz… it’s going to be interesting!! 🙂


  • Andre


    Do you no longer consume salt? Or do you have local sea salt available to you?

    That is the only product I would not be able to find locally that I choose to include for health reasons – sea salt that is.


    Making Sense of Things Reply:

    Hello Andre, that’s an excellent question indeed. Actually, we can’t be very helpful as we still had some salt in our cupboard when we’ve decided to stop buying food in supermarkets! Having said that, it’s natural sea salt and we barely use it anyway!… It will probably last some time then… Maybe by the time we finish it, you’d have find a solution and will be able to provide us with your recommendation?… 🙂


  • Ravi

    please forgive the complete off-topic – but this is **very** important information!

    THIS NEWS IS JUST BREAKING – an open letter to the USDA has been just made public by COL (Ret.) Don M. Huber, Emeritus Professor, Purdue University title: Glyphosate Roundup or Round Up Ready Crops May Cause Animal Miscarriages – and the revelation is shocking .THIS IS WHY RONNIE CUMMINS of the ORGANIC CONSUMERS ASSOCIATION IS 100% CORRECT IN HIS ABSOLUTIST STAND – Read the letter here:
    Ravi Wells
    Discoveries for a Full Life


  • Magi

    Totally agree with your there. Avoid processed food at all cost, especially if they are mass produced. If you have eaten fresh food before, you will know how different they are from processed food 🙁


  • Robert

    Come on people, lets get real and logical. If your doctor spent 10 minutes and instructed you what to eat and drink and how to live a healthy life style, maybe you’d have to see him once in 20 years. That would send him broke and he would have to look for an alternative vocation, say, plumbing, bricklaying, crane operating…! So, is it truly, “really” in his interest that you are healthy ??? Are members of the Big Pharma “really” interested to completely and permanently heal you with medication that you have to buy, buy, buy. Or, do they want you to keep coming back, and back and back….. ? Why ? Hmmm.

    Some goes for the “Law Enforcement” (Crime fighting force) Think what would happen to a country with no or very little crime, where police are mainly directing traffic, or tending to traffic accidents. How many people would lose a job or a significant part of their income, e.g. barristers, magistrates, detectives, office staff, cleaners, prison guards, counsellors, child protection agencies, car makers, fuel retailers, coffee, computer, cell phones, stationery sellers etc. etc. etc. etc. So, is there “really” any genuine concern and desire (by authorities) to fight the crime???? Not really !The system is designed to protect the criminal NOT the victim. Crims usually get “slap on the wrist”. Watch it ! Follow it! You can see it over and over again. People want to fight the crime,but NOT authorities, really, because they might end up with a mass unemployment on their hands. Its all about money, power and control. Its always been so, and it will always be so.
    Cheer-up. Grin and bear it.


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