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Eating Our Way To Doom

Updated: Jun 11

The Battle Against Processed Foods

By Ketan Bhatt

A burger and some curly fries from a fast food chain

Photo Credit: creativecommons

Food is an intrinsic part of human evolution - it has impacted human behaviour and health more profoundly than everything else put together. The advent of agriculture ushered in a civilizational turning point from the hunter-gatherer days and redefined our interactions and relationship with food. Fast forward to the present age and the advancements made in food technology over the last couple of decades and we can see that fresh agricultural produce is now a mere input ingredient, in the packaged edibles industry. The preference for processed food products that last longer on our shelves, seem to transcend the perishables at a remarkable pace. As time passes, the seduction of the ready-to-eat & processed variety of foods is slowly seeping in - sucking people into the quicksand of long-term bad health outcomes.

Therefore, it is a no-brainer to see the strong association of packaged foods and the bulging (pun totally intended) pandemic of obesity, that is engulfing many developed nations across the world. Availability of semi-cooked, processed, ready-to-heat-and-eat food packets ensure we get through the day without burning much energy. This is contributing to sedentary behaviours and an ever-expanding reservoir of unused fat reserves. Obesity doesn’t quite stir people up - since it’s a slow burn and takes years to spread & manifest. However, it is estimated to kill more people than deaths from smoking, alcohol or drug abuse. We are staring at an immediate future where; for the first time in the last few centuries, children may experience shorter life expectancy than their parents.

The Grim Reality

Edibles that last for months or years on our shelves don’t deserve to be even classified as food. It’s surprising that people find smoking as an unnatural human behaviour - while ignoring the perils of consuming the toxic cocktail of chemicals and additives that lace processed food. The alpha numerical codes and fancy chemical jargon on the food labels denote the class of substances added; artificial colours, acidity regulators, stabilizers, gelling agents, thickeners, flavouring adjuvants and the list goes on.

Food emulsifiers have been used extensively as a preservative in processed foods. They may seem safe when extracted from organic sources, but plenty of man-made variants also exist. No food label will reveal the source of additives, or the degree of harm associated with ingesting them. Studies have already evidenced the health hazards linked with dietary emulsifiers - ranging from basic digestion issues and inflammation to serious metabolic dysfunction and even coronary heart disease (IHD). Clearly, the existing plethora of these preservatives are being made more potent - and concocted further with “stuff” that is cleverly blended into the process, without being separately accounted for.

Naturally if there were no breakthroughs in research on food tech, we would not see the deluge of long expiry processed items that contain these dangerous chemicals – so prominently within our supermarkets of choice. What’s also true is there are no emulsifiers present in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, eggs, fresh meat and sea food. Succinctly put, our changed food preferences are creating the demand that’s fuelling further research in food preservation.

Zero Accountability

The pharmaceutical companies undergo rigorous product validation, extensive clinical trials and walk through a stringent regulatory framework to commercially release drugs in the market. This is supposed to ensure the drugs don’t just do their job, they do it without causing significant harm to the people consuming them. Any adverse events of severe side effects observed in a population, as a result of those drugs - gets the makers a great deal of attention by civil society and Governments alike. Is there a similar template in place for the chemicals and additives in the processed food business? Obviously, and unfortunately for us, the ill effects manifested from eating these foods are not immediately evident. This bestows immunity on them from scrutiny, policy action and critical Government intervention.

One could argue that the preservatives keep the foods protected from bacterial contamination, or natural deterioration for the duration of their recommended shelf lives. What about the impact of these chemicals on our health? How long do they stay in our systems and to what extent can they damage cellular functions and organs? Any chemical is a foreign object entering our fragile biological ecosystem. As a society we never ever fail to hold aberrant drug manufacturers accountable - why don’t we then demand the same standards from the processed food industry? It’s absurd to see the ‘best before’ on some of the pre-processed food packets, with expiry dates stretching up to 3 years from the date of manufacture. Apart from cured meats and pickles, I would be sceptical about pretty much everything else that finds its way on to store shelves, promising to last that long!

The ‘Not-So-Rosy’ Road Ahead

We just love to justify our poor food choices by citing time constraints, in the hyper competitive world we live in. However, in the dynamic world that we live in - it is extremely foolhardy to overlook the most basic human behaviour of eating. This simple daily occurrence has the largest ability to alter the course of our lives. Yet, we neglect its lasting repercussions for the short-term gain of a ‘quick fix’. Moreover eating, without the involvement of all the senses and mental faculties, has the potential to numb the body more than nourish it.

When looking at the population over the decades, we can see how more and more people are becoming increasingly sluggish and sedentary in their daily physical behaviours. Poor diets have allowed for IHD to shoot to the top of the Global Burden of Disease’s (GBD) causes of death in 2019. In a paper posted in 2020 titled - "Global Epidemiology of Ischemic Heart Disease: Results from the Global Burden of Disease Study", author Muhammad Jawad Hashim stated:

'the prevalence rate of IHD was 1,655 per 100,00 – which is set to increase to 1,845 per 100,00 as soon as 2030.'

Of course, diet cannot be viewed in isolation and held singularly responsible to cause the impact it does. The environment also plays a crucial role. Even if we were to achieve the almost improbable task of reversing our food choices and habits to eat fresh produce, there is sufficient evidence available that could jeopardise that shift; be it the ill effects of pesticide residues, artificial ripening agents and the alleged dangers of genetically modified foods. Some of these are valid concerns and have the potential to hinder our progress towards bringing about a change in food perceptions. Unsustainable agricultural practices are accelerating the nose-dive further. These are clearly tough challenges to tackle which is precisely why the focus should be on engineering fundamental changes in our agrarian systems and not on the industrialization of food products.

Good Health is a Choice

You may be tempted to ask, “have we reached the tipping point already?”. By all means this is a one-way ticket to a free fall - unless good sense prevails, and human intellect saves the day. Brace for the crash-landing or turn back to embark on good health. Eat fresh and live well or eat junk and become one. The choice is yours.

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