I have two articles that are so sensible, and so intelligent, they are making me giddy. The first, In Praise of Fast Food, in a wonderful essay on the history of food and food processing. It makes the point that while we want to avoid the worst pitfalls of the modern diet, we can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
As a historian I cannot accept the account of the past implied by this movement: the sunny, rural days of yore contrasted with the gray industrial present.
What’s the problem with this view? As much as I’d like you to read the whole article, allow me to summerize:
- Food needed to be processed, just to make it edible and preserve it. We have been messing with our food supply since we became human. Agriculture is a form of processing- selective breeding created plants and animals that were more nutritious and easier to keep. There’s a reason that agriculture replaced hunting and gathering.
- “Not starving” was the main focus of food processing up until modern times. Our current view is skewed by our apparent plenty.
- Modern industrial practices allow women to have the lifestyle we assume is “our right”. Women’s lives were dominated by food production throughout history. Stone ground wheat? Who ground it? Go to any third world country and see how much time is devoted to preparing food. Men too, were slaves to the fields.
- Most food we think of as “ethnic” were only developed in the last few hundred years.
- Food has always had hazards-molds, insect debris, plants themselves have toxins in them. Today’s hazards are no different.
There is much more in this article, the author’s main point is to not romanticize the past, and to appreciate and respect the strides we have made in having affordable, safe food that allow us to do things other than food production.
The second article is in a similar vein, on food processing. Again, it makes the point that all processing is not bad, and we need to make a more sophisticated distinction between good processing and bad. What Does Food Processing Really Mean? looks at this distinction. I would ask you to read it, but if you don’t, the point that it makes is that much of processing is necessary. Anything you do to food is processing it. Freezing, canning, milling flour, even evaporating sea water to get salt is processing it. She ends the article with the point that we need to be more clear in our terms, especially since manufacturers are trying to muddy it by calling things “fresh”and “natural” that aren’t. She would like to use three terms; fresh- for things like fruits and vegetables, minimally processed-for foods that the processing does not change it’s basic nature, and ultra-processed- for foods that contain artificial ingredients, cheap and degraded ingredients, or those that the processing makes them unhealthy for us. If you think about it, these are still slippery definitions-if you gas an apple to keep it fresh, is it still fresh? In her definition flour is minimally processed, but too much is definitely bad for you.
In spite of these problems, the main point of this article, that we need to think about our food, and not make snap judgements is sound. Even though most of us will find disagreement over what should or shouldn’t be in our diets, eating thoughtfully is something we should all be doing.
Please eat carefully, and think about what you’re eating. Please read something that totally disagrees with your current beliefs about food, to get perspective on what you believe. And- if you read the articles I’ve linked here, please comment leave me a comment, letting me know what you think of them.