What is the Food Processing Alternative?

Do we fully realize that most foods we eat are processed? We eat only a fraction of our foods raw. The big questions are: who is processing our food, what do they do with it and what goals do they have in mind? Is our health their top, or even any, concern? The food processing part of the industrial food system affects our health more than agriculture. Plenty has been written about the detrimental effects on our health of industrial farming practices and about the sustainable farming alternatives: organics, permaculture, biodynamics, etc. However, little has been written about the negative impact of industrial food processing and even less about any food processing alternatives. The topics addressed are usually about some specific food processing technologies but seldom, if ever, present the whole problem of what happens to our food after it is harvested. Not even talking about general problems that are associated with what happens after the harvest/slaughter creates an impression that there is no alternative to the industrial manufacturing of our foods. But there is one and it is quite obvious, we just need to notice it.

What is food processing? Anything that turns raw food into ready-to-eat food. Hence, processing covers not only what happens in food plants but also in restaurants and any other place where food is prepared for eating. That covers preparation of food in our homes. Home used to be the place where most foods were processed, now most of food processing/preparation happens elsewhere.

Some foods may be eaten raw or processed (veggies or fruits), some could be eaten raw but we strongly prefer to eat them processed (meats, fish or dairy) but some must be processed in order to make them edible. Grains, pulses, and oil seeds are examples but few think about bread as a processed food. Processing always significantly alters the sensory characteristics of food. We think about processing (cooking) mostly in terms of taste and other sensory values - that is what connects foods with our cultures and what all cuisines are about. However, processing also significantly changes the biochemical and nutritional qualities of foods, which cannot be seen or appreciated during consumption and is seldom discussed. The big question is whether the changes to food that occur during processing increase its nutritional and health benefits, reduce them, or make them detrimental to our health. We may only pay attention to the pleasure of eating but first of all we eat to live. Over 80% of our health can is attributed to our diet and only the remaining portion is associated with other lifestyle influences such as stress, sleep, exercise, attitude, supplements, etc. This is not widely publicized knowledge and, if anything, the effects that food has on our health seem to be somehow marginalized. Nutrition (food – health connection) isn't even a subject to which significant time, if any, is committed in medical schools.

Most, if not all, gourmet foods (just think about cold smoked hams, lox or aged cheeses) have been developed centuries ago in the quest to preserve foods and their consumption over extended seasons. Was any new type of gourmet foods created in today's food laboratories? All the massive work done there on food sensory qualities is rather focused on imitating tastes of traditionally processed foods. But many of these great tasting, traditionally processed foods were not be made primarily for their taste. People developed and kept making different processed foods because they were important elements of their diets tied with the seasons but also because they learned that such foods sustained their health over generations. Any food that didn't helped them would be eliminated from their diets. Any culture that would insist on eating unhealthy foods had to deteriorate and eventually perish. Possibly such cultures existed, we may never know that.

This may be a surprise to some of us, but the great taste that characterizes both raw and processed foods in traditional diets goes hand in hand with high nutritional value of such foods and could positively contribute to people's health. Healthy and tasty are not contradictory characteristics of traditional diets (accepting that the taste preferences of such cultures most likely were different than ours). This is opposite to today's foods when what is considered healthy food often has a connotation of the unappealing taste. People in the past sometimes ate foods that didn't taste good, but it was mostly for medicinal purposes. Foods that were part of healthy diets of pre-industrial societies tasted good, even if such tastes could be sometimes foreign to modern people. Part of the good taste of traditional foods was result of coming from healthy, nutrient-rich soils or waters.

Promoting traditional foods is often ridiculed as taking a big step backwards, as denying the progress that our society made in understanding and providing today's foods. It is presented as being impractical and just wrong. There are two basic answers to respond to such accusations. First, let's look around and see what progressive effect this new industrial food diet has had on the health of our society. Second, supporting and promoting pre-industrial food processing technologies doesn't mean rejecting the parts of food science that helps make foods safe for consumption. The focus on traditional foods is not about details but about principles that guided societies in the past to be healthy and can guide us to a healthy future. It is all about making our health and the health of the planet the overall goal of food processing, rather than higher profits collected by ever less people. The goal of higher profits and low food prices can only be achieved by high volume, highly automated, standardized processes of production and externalization of production costs. Neither our health nor the health of the planet is the goal of this food system that now dominates our food supply.

More complex processed foods are prepared today by specialized processors and consumers purchase them for direct consumption. Consumers may also buy raw ingredients and process foods at their homes; this is usually called cooking rather than food processing. Yet, in the past, most processed foods were made in households. Food processing, as understand by the Friends of Food Healing Centre, is about both: specialized processing and home cooking and food preservation. The same sustainable principles can apply to both streams. It is not enough to rely on purchasing foods that were traditionally processed as there can only be a few of them and they are not so easily available. Only when these principles are also applied to home food preparation will the resulting diet fully represent and provide traditional food nutrition.