A Brief History of Food – Rethinking “Processed”

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Farm to fork, field to plate, seed to shelf. … More and more we want to know where our food comes from. We want to know where it was grown (or produced), who grew it, and how. The same could be said for food ingredients. Where did they come from? How did they come to be? Why are they in our food?

To gain perspective on the origins of food ingredients, let’s take a look at the history of food itself. We’ve come a long way from our hunter/gatherer days, to farming and processing food by hand, and ultimately to modern day farming and food production. This evolution of food acquisition and production means that food itself is technology.

All foods (with a few exceptions) are processed. It’s simply not possible, convenient, or even healthy to avoid all processed foods. And you shouldn’t want to. We have never had food that is more safe, nutritious, and delicious than we have today. The Industrial Revolution is what allowed us to achieve these important qualities in our food system.

Food ingredients, from ones that are centuries old to ones more recently developed, help make possible a safe, convenient, healthful, flavorful and affordable food supply. By processing food and incorporating different ingredients, we are able to enjoy safer food (through the use of preservatives, like ascorbic acid, i.e., vitamin C), higher-quality food (which stays fresh longer), more nutritious food (by enriching with various nutrients), and more delicious food (enhanced taste and texture through flavors, spices, emulsifiers, etc.)

Take it from food historian and author, Rachel Laudan, who counters the claims that food is less safe, less nutritious and over-processed, as well as the yearning for a romanticized past that never actually existed. The real past was a division of classes – the wealthy and powerful enjoying rich, expensive food while the poor suffered from severe malnutrition, not only from lack of food, but also from the lack of safe, nutritious food.

She is quoted:

Farm products are not food; they are the raw materials for food. Turning plants and animals into something edible is just as difficult, just as laborious as farming itself. Very few of our calories come from raw, unprocessed food. And if those calories are from fruits and vegetables, then it’s only because centuries of breeding has made them less chewy, more tasty, and easier to digest. Cooking, which is one part of processing, went hand in hand with becoming human. Human food is processed food. And there are good reasons for this. Overall, processed foods are easier to eat and digest, more nutritious, tastier, safer, and longer lasting. The idea that any change made in the raw material is detrimental is just flat wrong.

If you know your history, you know your facts. And then, you know your food. It may be complex, but sometimes it’s just that simple.