About Me
I'm a Melbourne boy, hailing from St Kilda with one ex, one current wife and four kids. Love the outdoors and making new discoveries. I cook a lot at home (cheers from wife) and do some preserving, mostly jams, pickles and fruit liqueurs. This is the diary of a cooking journey.

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Monday, June 16, 2008
Processed Food - Good or Bad?
How do the words, Processed Food, make you feel?

Like there is some huge multi-national conglomerate, profiting like a Dark Lord from our consumption of manufactured food, that concurrently and insidiously destroys our health and wellbeing by turning natural foods, straight from the farm, into a pale imitation or even a grossly deformed version of their former selves, lacking greatly in any nutritional value or virtue.

I was watching the absorbing series, Ray Mears' Wild Food, in which he and Gordon Hillman examine the diets of our Stone Age ancestors. Filming on a small island, just off the coast of Britain, where an archaeological dig had uncovered fragments of hundreds of thousands of toasted hazelnut shells from about 7,000 b.c., the boys demonstrated how it might of been done, by scooping out a pit, lining it with sand, placing in the unshelled hazelnuts, covering with more sand and building a small fire on top, producing a primordial oven of sorts, that toasted the hazelnuts perfectly.

In another segment, Mears and Hillman gathered wild acorns, ground them to a coarse meal with a stone, then soaked that in water to remove the bitter tannins, which makes consuming acorns quite an ordeal. They suggested that this would have then been cooked into a gruel, a precursor to the gruels that fed European and New World peasants for so many centuries.

It was then that the thought struck me that processed food is nothing new, our Stone Age ancestors had been processing food and eating it as a regular part of their diet and indeed part of man's success in dominating our planet can be attributed to this very ability to process foods that otherwise could not be used or not available to us in their natural form.

Think of wheat for example, one of the world's dominant grains. It is not really possible to eat until it has been processed in some way, the acme of which is flour, obtained by milling and grinding, but in prehistoric times, wheat grains would have simply been cooked into a gruel as they were or perhaps partially ground, which is processing by a combination of grinding and heating.

Sadly, it was the success of our ability to process grains as well as legumes and nuts that helped lead to the immense destruction of forests worldwide as mankind moved to an agricultural stage some 10,000 years ago and cleared the land for crop planting. The island on which Mears and Hillman were filming the hazelnut site was once covered in hazelnut and other trees, but was now completely deforested.

Even though our diet is somewhat different these days to what our ancestors ate, it is still possible to taste food exactly as it used to be all that time ago. If you roast some hazelnuts, their flavour provides a direct link to what our Stone Age forebears experienced, a rather humbling thought. Less appealing but very nourishing were gruels, a sort of liquid drink made from cereals such as millet, rye, barley, oats, corn and of course wheat, whose modern equivalents are porridge and polenta.

I've seen written in a John Lethlean article, that it was the Romans who introduced porridge to Britain, but that seems strange as oats were only first domesticated around the time of the Roman invasion of England. In the first century a.d.. Pliny, a Roman scientist of the time, thought oats were merely a diseased form of wheat. Also, the English disdained oats; according to Wikipedia, the English had a saying that "oats are only fit to be fed to horses and Scotsmen", to which the Scottish riposte was "and England has the finest horses, and Scotland the finest men", which sums up oats' importance to the Celtic people, most particularly the Scots, whom the Romans failed to conquer.

A more likely explanation is that as oats became renowned for their singular ability to thrive in cold, wet climates, where other grains like wheat cannot perform, they migrated westward along northern Europe, from their birthplace in near Asia, finding a natural home in the harsher north of England. It is known that when oats reached Britain, they were already being consumed as a gruel by the Teutons and Gauls and indeed the name porridge derives from the French word, potage - the strikingly similar word porage, which is still in use to this day, is another way Scots spell porridge.

This same Lethlean article also refers to another kind of porridge, one made from ground corn - polenta - which was also the Italian word to describe gruels made in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance from things like spelt, chestnut flour and the aforementioned millet and acorns. It went on to say that after the introduction of corn from the New World, "Maize soon became popular in northern Italy, resolving the feeding problems of mountainous folk in those pre-tourism times when dried corn, ground and turned into a satisfying gruel, helped them through snowbound winters without ski lifts and visitors from the city".

Maize polenta may well have resolved the problem of feeding mountain folk, but it was very much the poisoned chalice, causing outbreaks of debilitating pellagra or corn-sickness amongst those whose survival over the winter depended upon maize, which, if left untreated, eventually lead to death.

In an amazing triumph of food processing, the primitive people of the Americas, where corn is native, and who relied on it as a staple crop, had somehow worked out that by treating corn with an alkaline solution made from ashes or lime, that they could avoid pellagra and its complications. Unfortunately, the process wasn't understood and tragically rejected by those in the Old World, who suffered as a consequence, not just in Italy, also Spain and France, as well as other parts of the world where it was introduced.

No matter what you think about processed food, it is without a doubt one of the things that helps to define us as a species and made possible our stunning success in spreading across the world. Humans could not survive in our present state without it, it's integral to us. Love or hate it, it's here to stay.
 
  posted at 9:13 am
  8 comments



8 Comments:
At 5:10 pm, Anonymous Dani said...

But the difference is that back in the day, food was processed for good not evil. It was processed to make it more digestible (ie healthier). Nowadays on the other hand, food is processed to increase shelf life and multinational corporation profits. Whilst I eschew modern day processed foods for me and mine and cook most everything from scratch, this does include 'other' types of processing. For example, I soak oats and brown rice and other grains and nuts in a way designed to break down in digestible phytic acid.
Anyway, must get off soapbox, Ankle Biters screaming for naturally processed dinner.
Great post, great topic!

 
At 8:55 pm, Blogger Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

I agree with Dani -- processing food for digestibility is one thing. Processing for longer shelf life or to survive the transporting of food from where it is seasonal to where it is not is another thing entirely. The truth is that the word "processed" has become loaded, but justifiably so.

 
At 10:19 pm, Blogger Open air said...

Excellent stuff !

 
At 10:30 pm, Blogger t h e - g o b b l e r said...

Excellent post Neil.
Yea your're right that processed food has been around for aeons. The term though, has come to refer to foods that dont much resemble their original state. It has been appropriated & hammered out to now mean anything that is not at all natural, full of numbers & preservatives. A slogan for any foods that enter a manufacturing process.
What this dispairingly highlights for me, about those who knee jerkingly mis-use this term, is their dis-connect to the realities of modern food/agri/business.
Most of the food we consume in western society is processed.
Your post is a great wake up call to this historical fact.

 
At 11:30 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi dani, there is that dichotomy of processing for the right reasons and processing for profit. Sounds like you are making some good choices.

Hi lydia, dead right, it seemed important to set out the differences as in my own thinking before I saw the program was that all processed food was inherently bad, but that's not the case.

Hi open air, thanks!

Hi gobbler, I saw that disconnect too, but was much comforted to realize that there are still foods that connect us all to our ancestors. There is no doubt that some processed foods are abused in the search for profit for shareholders...who also have to eat, ironic really.

 
At 5:59 am, Blogger katiez said...

Processing to make edible...Good!
Processing to make Velveeta (or and 'cheese in a can'...Bad!

 
At 8:44 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi katiez, good point too. Unfortunately, Velveeta processing makes a profit, so we are kind of stuck with it.

 
At 11:36 am, Blogger grocer said...

lovely, thought provoking stuff.

I guess for me it says more about the way language is used to create "good" and "bad". Processing grain, nuts, animals for consumption is not a bad thing - it's absolutely critical for survival.

HOWEVER "convenience foods" described as processed foods are the issue that I have. dried pasta - go for it, continental side dishizzzz - UGH!

 

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