Processed Food, Diets, and Our Biology

A Brief History of Food: Where We Are

Americans have a very strange relationship with food, especially in the context of history. Up to 70 or so years ago, the majority of humans were just concerned about having food available to eat, and if it tasted good, all the better. While having enough food is still a problem for too many, society now views food through a whole different lens, judging food on a range of things from calories to carbs to gluten content.

Recent surveys have a category labeled “ultra-processed food” making up nearly 60% of the American diet. These foods include things like frozen pizza and dinners, fast food, chips and snack foods, canned soups, and breakfast cereals. While these foods can’t be solely blamed for all of the ailments of the world, numerous studies have correlated the diseases of modern society to this food category. So why have we continued to increase the amount of ultra-processed food in our diets? The simple answer is that, despite potential long term effects, in the short term this food is the most convenient and generally tastes good to us. For a human body rooted in surviving in the wild, consuming a high amount of calories with the least amount expended in getting and preparing the food seems like a great equation for continued existence.

Ever since our ancient ancestors started cooking food over a fire, we have continually developed processing techniques that get more nutrition out of each portion of food we eat. So what has made this latest round of processing innovation deleterious to our health? Here, some nuance is required. Take frozen pizza for instance: a combination of cheese, meat, vegetables, herbs, and bread, all staples of human existence for millennia. But, in the last century, instead of processing working towards accentuating the ingredients, we have moved to making things artificially taste the same and in a manner to make our biology believe it is desirable, all in the cheapest and fastest manner possible. So now, the sausage on the pizza is no longer just meat mixed with herbs and spices, but a mish-mash of binders and fillers such as soy lecithin, a flavor pack, and hopefully some meat, formed into little balls shaped somewhere between a sphere and a cube. The crust is no longer based on flour, water, and a yeasted fermentation process, but a mix of ingredient to quickly make a dough that can be mechanically pressed and formed into a mold. These changes, while seemingly innocuous from the perspective of ensuring a consistent product, can have noticeable impact on our biology.

Let’s think about this through a series of questions. Why does food taste good to us in the first place? If we give nature credit for having important reasons for the functions of our body, the deduction that food that tastes good is also what is beneficial for us doesn’t seem too crazy. And if the goal is vitality, it makes sense to consume products from nature compatible with our physiology that were also high in health and vigor. So then, what makes these products of nature healthy?

If we look first at plants, a healthy plant is one that grows vigorously and produces abundant fruits, seeds, or tubers with natural resistance to insects and disease. Healthy plants are able to do this because they convert a higher percentage of the sun’s rays into energy. This energy is stored as sugars that can then be used to create starches, proteins, fats, and secondary metabolites and grow and develop the plant. Energy is also exchanged with microbes associated with the root system for water, minerals, and other compounds. These healthy plants will have proportionally higher sugars, starches, fats, minerals, and metabolites that then benefit animals that eat these healthy plants.

As humans, what we need from food, in simple terms, is energy to make us go and nutrients for the building blocks to grow and repair our bodies. So when we eat something that is in some combination sweet, salty, and savory, with pleasant flavor, our bodies understand this to be something that came from a healthy plant that was full of energy (sweet), well mineralized (salty), easily digestible (savory), and had helpful metabolites (pleasant flavor). But a lot of modern processed food has skipped a step and given us the taste and flavors without the supporting nutrition.

Modern food processors are in business to make money, and to do that, they need you to want to keep eating their product. So adding sweeteners, salt, and compounds like monosodium glutamate (MSG) to stimulate the body into getting what it thinks is a good deal is an easy step. But, then the body doesn’t get the expected minerals and complex compounds that make up food from healthy natural systems, leaving it in a dilemma. There is a lot to still learn in this regard, but ultra-processed foods tend to be over consumed in comparison to less processed counterparts. Whether this is a lack of satiety from this nutritional absence or an initial overstimulation from flavorings or some other reason is yet to be determined. This higher consumption may cause problems because you end up eating more than the body can handle or parts of the processed food causes issues with the body and eating more of it increases these problems. Whatever the reason, it appears there is something amiss with our modern ultra-processed foods.

So what is to be done when our biology tells us to go with the easy option but cognitively we know this isn’t good for us? So far, the most common response has been the creation of diets which generally entail the restriction of food in some manner. Diets are usually engaged in response to health concerns, most notably the accumulation of extra bodyweight. As our body image is the most readily evident (and socially stigmatized) factor we associate with health and “success”, it is no surprise that the U.S. weight loss industry was valued near $80 billion in 2019. But for all the efforts in dieting, the majority of weight lost is regained, and then some, over time.

Bodyweight and health is a highly complex subject that entails numerous factors of our food and diet, but also is affected by stress levels, environment, financial stability, and mental and emotional well-being and deserves more than the platitude of “eat less, exercise more”. To this end, diets and restriction are tough for us to deal with, as our body dearly wants us to survive and is programmed to have us find and eat food that tastes good. Rather than framing this as a battle of wills with our body, another path is to raise and prepare foods that naturally taste good and also include the incumbent nutrition needed to satisfy and invigorate our bodies.

Contrary to most of our development as a species, food can no longer be chosen purely on the intelligence of our senses. The modern world now requires thought and discernment into what we consume. If our sole concern was on what to eat, this choice would not be too overwhelming, but we live in a busy and stressful world that requests of us an ever growing list of decisions to be made. It becomes easy to default to the ultra-processed options that abound, even for those of us that are raising and producing those more nutrient-dense foods. Our family is working on reconnecting to food right along with you, fitting food preparation into a life full of chores, school, dance lessons, piano lessons, and family time. Meals that both delight our senses and enrich our bodies is possible. This is not the easiest path and does require thought and effort, but it is a path that holds the promise of a healthier future for us and the world we live in.

We are raising food and connecting with you to help develop this path. What are your biggest challenges in dealing with food and preparing meals? Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, or by email and let us know. We’d love to hear from you and find ways to assist in any way we can.

A Brief History of Food