Sunday, May 15, 2016

In Defence of Processed Food

In September 2015, a CBC program on school lunches pointed out that "healthy" choices are difficult because standards were set in the 1940s when the US Army found that it had to reject a large percentage of recruits for being underweight or otherwise malnourished. Modern processed food is too good, it seems, and is making our children obese.
That reminded me of the days when a large part of a family's time was spent "putting up" the preserves for the winter. Fruit was dried, or made into compotes, jams, and jellies. Cabbage was converted into sauerkraut. Vegetables were pickled or boiled nearly to death and put into sealers. As these cooled, the air inside contracted and pulled the lids down into an airtight seal.

One of the major events at Rutzenmoos was the making of sugar syrup and molasses. The women in the household chopped and sliced sugar beets, then cooked them in the big washing kettle, a copper bowl inset into a purpose built stove, which was normally used to boil the washing in a soap and lye solution as part of the weekly washday rituals. It was of course perfectly sterile. The syrup was a golden colour, the molasses were a nice sticky dark brown. I don’t know whether the syrup was further processed to make sugar, I paid little attention to it. I  concentrated on the molasses, whose taste was I can still sense in my oral memory. Wonderful stuff!

Without processed food, we would have starved.  People nowadays have no idea how important processed food is for survival, and even less how much time was spent in processing it. The food industry made processed food cheap and plentiful. Most of them made wholesome food. But as recently as the 1940s and 50s, governments had to pass regulations to prevent food adulteration, or to enforce safer (and more expensive) processing methods on the less scrupulous manufacturers.

In fact, it was our ancestors' discovery of how to store and process food that led to our eventual dominance of the ecosystem. Until people knew how to grow grains and process other food, they could not live in temperate climates where fresh food is seasonal. True, some people have learned how to use technology to live in very inhospitable climates, the Inuit for example; but they survive because, as luck would have it, their prey contains vitamins without which they would die. That, not technology, is what enables the Inuit to live in the Arctic.

The present day reaction against processed food comes largely from people who have no personal memories of how important processed food is for us. The fact that we can get fresh fruits and vegetables year-round has also helped distract people from this insight.

There’s another fact, which perhaps should be better known: Human digestive systems do not do a very good job of digesting fresh foods. Cooking is a kind of pre-digestion. It breaks down cell walls in fruits and vegetables, and degrades the proteins in meats, making both more nutritious for us. Without cooking, we would get a good deal less value from the food we eat. True, cooking also destroys some vitamins, but usually there’s more left over than we would get from the uncooked food. The same is true of calories. Many starchy foods are essentially indigestible until they are cooked.

Processed food has achieved a bad rep. I think it’s undeserved. In fact, it’s because our food is generally so wholesome and nourishing that the fearful among us fasten on any smidgen of evidence that suggests food is not as good as it might be, however trivial the failure is in the larger scheme of things.

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