How Food Has Changed

How Food Has Changed


Last week, as part of their study, I was referring our students to read through Bill's latest book How To Eat Right & Save The Planet. As a society we lost control of our nutrition when we allowed industry to produce our food. Food made in a factory instead of a kitchen put the power of healthy eating in the hands of those who have profit as a motive instead of health.

We know that our food has changed over the centuries. Ever since the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago our relationship with the production and processing of food has been transforming and with it, we have changed nature. We cleared forests, claimed grassland and generally placed our distinct footprint on the face of the planet.  Along with the changes in agriculture have come changes in the nutritional substance of what we eat and how we feel about our food.

Much of what we eat today would be completely foreign to our grandparents. That change is a reflection of many factors. The way we grow our food, the techniques we use to process it, the systems we use to transport it, advertise it, and sell it have all gone through a massive transformation. We also know something else. The food in the market stores and in the fast food outlets and the snacks and treats we see advertised on TV are killing us. And I do mean killing us.

The food industry will claim that these changes improved the quality of what we eat, offer longer shelf-life, and will provide us with a new era of abundant food. We are even told that it is the healthiest diet in history. As we will see, all of those statements are false and shift attention away from the price we pay in terms of public health, social justice, and environmental damage. The reasons we continue to eat the products of this bloated and corrupt industry and even feed it to our children are many.

The issues of what we eat are not only limited to the industry that produces the food but also to personal habits, medical short-sightedness, political cowardice, and imagined traditions. To see through the smoke and mirrors, I want to start in the kitchen.  As you may remember, that is the room where food was stored, prepared, and for so many centuries eaten. I am going to focus on one particular period of the recent past: the years immediately before and following World War Two. It was a time when we experienced the greatest change in our food and in our relationship to what we eat.

Home Cooking

Prior to the late 1940s, cooking generally happened at home. We knew where our food came from and who selected and cooked it. We were in control of what we ate. Usually it was a family member who prepared the family meal, most likely a mother or grandmother. Some of that food might have been from a family garden or a local provider.

After the Second World War more women started to work outside the home and time for food preparation was limited. The folk traditions that had ruled the kitchen were being replaced by advertising and more processed foods. The marketplace was also being transformed. By the mid-1950s the supermarket moved in.

The food industry was devoted to helping women out of that pesky time problem. New cookbooks showed homemakers how to use condensed soups, packaged sauces, and cheap cuts of meat to add “variety” to the table. Frozen foods, with a quick cooking time, made seasonal vegetables available all year round. The food industry promised you could make a cake in 5 minutes and promised a complete dinner in 25 minutes, what could be better?

The Cold Truth

The generation that had grown up during the Great Depression and endured the Second World War wanted an easier life. Food became a primary commercial focus in this quest. Why spend time preparing food that could be purchased ready-made? Why wait an hour for dinner when it could be served piping hot in minutes? The two-income household was on the rise, and the growing middle class wanted everything to be more “streamlined,” “modern,” and “convenient”.

In the 1920s, the Birdseye Company had developed the flash-freezing process, enabling producers to deliver seafood and some vegetables without significant loss of taste. However, most small shops lacked the equipment to keep foods frozen, and many homes did not have refrigerators with freezing compartments. Appliance makers manufactured new refrigerators with bigger freezing compartments that became symbols of status in the modern home. By the late 1930s, the popularity of home refrigerators was growing; and after the Second World War, they became more commonplace. Supermarkets quickly expanded their refrigeration and could sell everything the family needed in one location. “One-stop” food shopping was born.

Refrigeration largely erased the problem of distance between food sources and consumers. Previously foods, such as fish, were difficult for consumers living far from the coasts to purchase, and most dairy foods, especially butter would not be possible to store without refrigeration. Now meat could be slaughtered at a great distance and with industrial speed and stored for months and shipped long distances without spoilage. It also meant that producers could hold food for very long times before releasing them to the marketplace. The “freshness factor” and its inherent effect on nutrition was undermined.

With refrigeration, local and regional farming began a slow slide into oblivion. Seasonal eating went out the window. Regional and local farming were forced into a corner and could not compete with crops grown cheaply at a distant location and shipped long-distance out of season. The supermarkets, coupled with proliferating fast-food outlets, were the most dramatic first steps toward the modern diet. By the late 1950s, both had become symbolic of American food culture and was being exported to Europe. They also became international symbols of affluence and social privilege. The general public was thrilled by this “modern” quick, easy, and inexpensive food. Very few saw that there were hidden costs in these food products that would have to be paid later. Some of these costs were physical, some were environmental. Less obvious costs concerned how we perceived the value of food in our lives.

Do You Know What You Are Eating?

In our collective innocence, we assumed that the companies that made our food had our best interests in mind. Our food was no longer cooked; it was manufactured. Aside from the label, we often had no way of judging food quality. The food was canned, bottled, or otherwise concealed. Words like “natural,” “nutritious,” “healthy,” or “wholesome” lost all meaning outside of advertising. A chasm was created between our food and ourselves.

The food industry already knew it was easy to make food look good and even taste fresher through the use of chemical additives and mechanical processing. Peas that turned grey in processing could be dyed a bright green. Unsellable tomatoes could be made into ketchup and sauces, re-coloured, re-flavoured, and artificially thickened. Our manufactured food became a chemistry project. As long as the product had a long shelf life, looked good, and had an acceptable taste, it was a winner. Oh, and predictability was a plus. As McDonald’s was to discover, the consumer loves predictable.

The new supermarkets could store stock for longer periods of time. Assurances of “freshness” were impossible to verify. More chemical additives and preservatives gave us a diet with plenty of taste but not much flavour. This was a feast filled with chemicals and calories but with diminished in nutritional value.

One of the results of eating pre-packaged foods is a reduction in the nutritional density of the foods consumed. This particularly affects children. It is an everyday nutritional deficiency experienced as more and more meals are ready-to-eat, fast foods are brought home to eat. One study showed that half the food energy that children consumed was from fast foods eaten in the home. At a workshop last year, Bill showed a loaf of bread and asked the kids, where does your food come from? We then showed them some slides, with soil, growing wheat etc., and one of the kids said, my food doesn’t grow in dirt, it comes from the supermarket.

We have given away the kitchen and now have no idea what’s in the food we eat, it has been cleverly disguised. The food itself is mass produced in a factory and then frozen. Restaurants store this frozen food in large, walk-in freezers. Cooks reheat it rather than making it from scratch. The factory adds artificial and natural flavors to the food to make sure it all tastes the same. These flavours are manufactured in separate factories.

As I wander down the aisles in supermarkets and look at all the coloured packages selling ‘dead’ food, I relay to all my students and clients; you would get more nutrition from eating the cardboard box.

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In good health