There are quite a number of reasons that much of the processed food marketed today can be very harmful to one’s health. Processed foods can make your body chemically impure from its natural pristine starting point, force your chemistry to evolve in a way that it wasn’t intended to, prevent your chemistry from evolving in the way it was designed to, or do all three of those things. Many processed foods and industrial practices used in their production are also detrimental to both the local and global population and to our local and global environments.
This article will discuss a number of issues surrounding processed food that need to be given serious consideration. I’ll define what is meant by the term “processed food,” give some information about harmful aspects of heavily processed food, explore the history of dietary practices of ancient peoples, and consider some of the ideological issues that should be considered regarding diet in general and heavily processed foods in particular.
PROCESSED FOOD - DEFINITION
So, what is meant by the term “processed food”?
In a completely literal sense, processed food in its simplest form begins with food that you are chewing in your mouth. You are processing it, technically – by masticating it, you’re changing it from one form to another.
A blender processes food. A juice machine processes produce. Even slicing an apple is food processing.
But those processes don’t alter the food in a way that transforms that food into something toxic or incompatible to human chemistry. When you chew nuts, you're actually processing them into a pulverized matter that can be swallowed; if you didn’t chew them, you’d choke on them.
In the case of blending produce or juicing it, it is minimal processing, so the result is not adulterating it or toxifying it.
The next form of processing food (that causes the food to become adulterated) is when the food is cooked - specifically, when it’s overcooked.
Manipulating temperature literally is alchemy. Cooking (manipulating temperature) changes food in a way that alters it completely. This becomes a serious issue when you are unintentionally creating something that is not compatible with human chemistry. Anything that is not compatible with your chemistry is essentially a toxin that your body has to work hard to remove.
PROCESSED FOOD – HEALTH ISSUES
There are different ways to create toxic food. One way is to cook something at an extremely high temperature for a very long period of time. Doing so reduces it down to its basic elemental form in which the compounds become concentrated and more difficult for the body to break down. Such is the case with refined sugar - processed and heated sugar.
Salt is a similar compound. When natural (from the sea or from the salt mine), it is a mineral that is vital to human chemistry. When heated, chemistry changes it and it becomes adulterated.
Fats can be extracted from a variety of plants and concentrated, or elements can be added to them that are completely incompatible biologically.
The next level of processed food (or food that contains additives) consists of foods that have been stripped from their original, easily digestible forms. They can be changed into forms that make them more complicated to digest. And the reverse is also true: Sometimes processed food is changed from something that is complicated to digest into something that is simple to digest. Both variations can be unhealthy or harmful to body chemistry depending on the circumstances.
The most dangerous of processed foods are those that have been created in a laboratory and have synthetic chemicals added to them. Even though these chemicals may be approved by our government, that doesn't mean that they are safe. Some chemicals may be safe for a large demographic in the short run or even in the long run. Yet even those considered safe are sometimes very destructive to individuals depending on the state of their body chemistry at certain points in time.
Chemical additives should not be part of the food we eat, and they should not make their way back into the water supply, but they do. Processed food is everywhere around us, so it’s very difficult to avoid. That makes it the case that although we need to avoid much of it, for the sake of our own psychological health we cannot be obsessed with minute details about our avoidance of it.
The unhealthiest chemically processed foods are those that are highly refined to maximize any property like sweetness or texture. They can be altered in a way creates a burden for your body to manage. That burden could be creation of a lower pH balance in your blood, overstimulation of your hormonal system, disruption of the normal chemistry of your body, and, last but not least, inflammation. The most common culprits are sugary foods, bleached foods, and foods with chemicals added to ensure longer preservation.
Refined and processed sugars are heated at such extreme temperatures and concentrated so that consumption of them disrupts body chemistry. Bleaching with dangerous chemicals takes colors out of food to make them more desirable to certain consumers. Preservatives make foods last longer, but unfortunately usually requires harmful chemicals to achieve that.
Packaged food from supermarkets can be deceptive. Food can be designed or disguised to look healthy even if it’s been processed to a degree that has made it extremely unhealthy. Processes used in the food industry ensure longer shelf life of foods, but doing so affects enzymes, certain nutrients, and taste. But you can easily distinguish between extremely fresh products and food that has been preserved in such a way that it is older than a couple of days. Wine gets better with age, and so does scotch, but with the exception of cheese, food does not.
Unfortunately, in the food industry freshness is usually the enemy of profits. The list of food items that are chemically processed for longer shelf life is exhaustive; cookies, cakes, cereals, milks, beverages, wine, snacks, ice cream, frozen vegetables, frozen dinners, animal proteins (beef, chicken, pork), and many others.
PROCESSED FOOD – HISTORICAL CONSIDERATIONS
At no time in history were all of the various tribes of human beings all over the planet in complete synchronicity with each other in terms of lifestyle and diet. We were and are all extremely different from culture to culture.
For a very long time in our history, human beings lived in small migrating bands. The way that history writes about mankind varies from century to century, but generally in the modern mind we think of ourselves now as more adapted, more civilized, and more advanced than at any other time before us. This is simply not true.
Certainly in the modern world there are many communities that are as advanced as any civilization before us. But it doesn't take much (simply turn on the TV) to realize that there are people groups in the present day that are among the most brutal and destructive that have ever existed.
Having spaceships and the internet doesn’t make us more advanced than others who came before us. Certainly, if you look at people from ancient times who lived free from starvation, free from chronic disease, free from the threats of environmental destruction and warfare, people who lived close to the earth and honored ancestral traditions, such people should be considered advanced.
It takes a great deal of ingenuity to survive in nature. There have been many communities dating back thousands and thousands of years, especially the aboriginals of Australian history, who had incredibly advanced concepts of diet, wholeness, self-healing, health, and wellness.
They were many bands of human beings that understood what plants to eat and what plants were for healing. They knew how to keep their water clean and they knew what animals to avoid eating. They had this knowledge from experience and it was passed down from generation to generation.
The most successful groups of human beings throughout all of history were the vegetarians. They ate eight minimal amounts of animal protein and were extremely active. They understood complex agricultural systems. They drank clean water and they breathed clean air. Additionally, they were successful in their lifetimes because they had rich spiritual world views.
We are no longer hunters, even if we eat meat. Hunting for your meal required a lot of exercise by the hunter. Some bands of people did not have the wherewithal to prepare the land and grow produce. They developed as meat eaters and likely foraged for produce that grew wild.
It took a long time for humans to develop the skills required to harvest leafy greens (circa 2600 BC). And there is evidence we ate cooked root vegetables as far back as 170,000 years ago. Meanwhile, animal protein such as fish continued to be a staple for people who lived near water.
Tribes that relied on maize (corn) had very earthbound spiritual practices and believed that their prayers and rituals could control the outcomes of their harvests.
During the most recent 5,000 years of history (which is the definition of the modern world), Europeans and others began to drift from hunter-gatherers to largely agricultural and livestock-tending tribes in small cities. Alcohol-making processes, along with more elaborate food preparations such as baking, boiling and frying, were discovered (approximately 5th century BCE).
Food preservation by processes such as smoking and pickling created longer shelf life foods. This was especially desirable when food was scarce, or for maintenance of food supplies during migrations. The first people to refine and granulate sugars in plants were the Indian people, dating as far back as the 4th century BC.
Food concepts, innovations and recipes were handed off from people to people around the world. For example, a 13th century Italian explorer brought noodles back to Italy from China. And cheese was invented around 10,000 years ago, likely when sheep became domesticated.
Through relics such as statues, obesity has been found to exist as far back as 30,000 years ago. Some ancient people revered obesity, as they did fertility and abundance.
However, the three major world religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - reviled it. The Old Testament defined gluttony as one of the seven deadly sins. It's important to note that shift in our thinking (e.g., Proverbs 23:20: "Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat."). So it’s important to realize that early on in history people began to realize that food can be used in detrimental ways.
The more ancient hunter-gatherer communities had better relationships with their food and generally used simple preparation procedures. But we live in an altogether different era now, particularly since the 1930s and the introduction of supermarkets. Today larger supermarkets are 12,000 to 40,000 square feet. They immediately were overwhelmingly accepted by the general public.
Supermarkets undeniably offer benefits to a great number of people, in terms of convenience, low prices, and other factors. But the unfortunate reality is that they have spawned industrial and marketing practices that thrive on and often exploit people who make poor choices regarding their dietary practices.
PROCESSED FOOD – IDEOLOGICAL CONSIDERATIONS
In today’s world, waste and gluttony are widespread. This is the fault of both individuals and industries that are collectively socially irresponsible. Industries create products that are harmful to individuals and the environment, and individuals passively purchase such products with little thought.
Single use plastics are one such example. The industrial waste by-products and massive amounts of garbage they create constitute a man-made disaster both for ourselves and for our future generations, and I am ashamed to say that I was a major contributor to this problem in the past.
We acquire necessities packaged in single use plastics with such ease we barely concern ourselves with the repercussions of our actions. We are not only intoxicating ourselves with the use of household chemicals and processed foods, we are intoxicating our planet.
Another major offender in this scheme of things is the livestock industry. It’s not only brutal to living, conscious creatures, it is wasteful beyond measure. The agricultural industry at large is responsible for the mechanized rape of the land and the dumping of toxic fertilizers and pesticides into our drinking water supplies. All this is still happening today.
Our living systems are dysfunctional. This certainly sounds depressing and hopeless. But it is what it is. Most all who are aware of these situations want very much to see change for the better take place.
Such change is possible. But it will not be easy.
The first and hardest change that must take place is that which each and every one of us should make in our own behaviors. I have made and am continuing to make such changes in my own life. I became aware of what my behaviors were doing and I stopped doing 90% of them. I did things in my own life that made me more conscious of the reality of what was and is happening. When I first read about all of these negative things I became angry, after which I felt sad and hopeless. But I had to move past those feelings and being taking positive action.
It would be futile to try to present these topics in a way that they could be made palatable or marketable to the general public. The things that are happening right now to living creatures under our watch with our collective hands are atrocious. Just go to PETA's social media pages and watch their endless supply of tragic videos of how we mistreat animals.
This is a reality. We have a choice. We either admit that this is happening to our fellow creatures and beloved home planet or we remain closed down and in denial. In denial it is hard to make changes either to your own behavior or to larger societal problems.
Some world leaders still perpetuate denial syndromes and very detrimental, addictive consumer lifestyles. Our behaviors are rewarded with profits if we are in industries that harm people and pollute the planet. Consumers need to vote with their dollars and collectively shout "Stop making us humans, all creatures, and the planet sick and suffering!"
If horribly offending companies are not rewarded by our business they will disappear. This is how it works. Society changes its thinking greatly due to consumer behavior. It's outlandish, but that is how we are structured. This is the age of consumerism; foolish consumerism, and it's no longer innocent. We are all well aware of what we are doing when we buy products wrapped in single use plastic. We are all well aware of what we are buying with many of the animal products that are purchased cheaply - We are supporting that industry, and we need to stop doing so.
I made a list of my own worst consumer behaviors and I looked for alternatives. I inconvenienced myself and I changed many of my damaging behaviors. I have a long way to go. When I look for savings, sometimes I’m tempted to make bad choices. Now that I’m aware of what I am and always have been doing, I no longer can justify laziness to change. I must continue the process of my own change for the better (in terms of lifestyle choices) and find solutions and alternatives, rather than excuses and justifications.
We all have to do this.
We all have to ask ourselves questions such as the following: "Where does this cotton shirt come from?” “Where are these eggs from?” “Can I buy the luxury SUV without leather seats?” “Why is leather a luxury for me?” “Where is my clothing made?” “What harm will this interior house paint cause the oceans or the rivers and lakes (not based directly on how I use it, but based on the paint industry and its environmental practices)?”
There are hundreds of questions to ask ourselves like this, ranging from gasoline alternatives to the materials all of our clothing is made from. Start asking the questions and ruminate. Then make a small lifestyle change.
Start with the following big one: Can you consume less animal-based foods for the sake of your chemistry and the suffering and death of another? Start with 50% less consumption. Next, avoid single use plastic like it's a plaque.
As I’ve said before, I’m guilty of most or all of these practices. I’m trying to change, and I’m 20 years late in doing it. I should have been an activist in my 30s, but I was busy consuming.
I now realize that my lifestyle choices were harmful to others. I hope that others will consider lifestyle changes that will be better for themselves and better for the planet. Collectively, we can stop being part of the problem and become part of the solution.
Art Work by Marcus Antebi