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!