Food, an essential element to human existence, has acted as an economical, political and social dividing force between countries. Regions with an abundance of food allow its citizens the time and materials to focus on alternative problems, while a shortage of food ushers in war, poverty, despair and death. Fortunately, Western civilization is experiencing the former, which has allowed us to enjoy the incredibly sophisticated and comfortable society that we live in today.
The food industry, as a result of its monumental importance and influence to our well being, has become a magnet of constant scrutiny and for a good reason. Recently, evidence is showing that in order to feed our rapidly growing populations, a sacrifice has been made between quality and quantity.
The days of the local farmer providing us with fresh organic fruit and vegetables are for the most part extinct. While there are still farmer’s markets or boutique grocers that sell fresh local produce, the vast majority of North Americans buy their food from brand named grocery stores. Such food that was produced in large scale operations is more than likely to have been filled with preservatives due to the fact that this food is usually transported from thousands of miles away. Furthermore, to cater to the North American/Western fast paced lifestyle, consumers are increasingly resorting to pre-packaged or pre-made meals. The art of cooking with fresh ingredients, full of much needed nutrients, is rapidly diminishing.
The consequences of these eating patterns have been all too apparent in terms of poor health statistics attributed to the Western sedentary lifestyle and overconsumption of calories. However, there may be more to it than this alone. The highly processed, mass-manufactured nature of our food not only makes it calorie dense, but also causes the food to contain ingredients that are not found in any natural foods. Such artificial ingredients have been shown to have negative implications on an individual’s health over time.
The negative effect from the mass production of food often goes unnoticed. It has been evidenced that we manage to get far fewer nutrients from food today than previous generations, even when consuming the exact same food sources. This shocking observation can be attributed to soil depletion from large scale agricultural operations, as crops are not being rotated as needed, as well as due to the regular use of pesticides and herbicides. The use of pesticides and herbicides has become unavoidable in increasing crop yields adequate enough to feed our growing world population. At a minimum crops should be rotated as planting the same crop in the same place for many years in a row, although more cost effective for the farmer, will deplete the soil of certain nutrients. In other words, despite individuals making conscious efforts to eat healthy and prepare their own meals they are still likely not receiving the full nutritional benefits required from their food.
Another culprit of the Western health epidemic are trans fats, which have been linked to heart disease. These fats are found primarily in partially hydrogenated oils that are used in fast food, snacks, margarine, creamers, and baked goods. Fortunately, trans fats have been banned in the U.S. with food manufacturers having been granted three years to remove it from their products. This ban is a huge step forward. Canada, however has not enacted a similar restriction making it no surprise that heart disease is one of our largest medical expenses costing the country $21.2 billion each year. With the increasing cost of healthcare, education on the avoidance of these toxins is paramount until the ban hopefully gets put in place.
Lastly, and arguably the most harmful culprit is refined sugar. In the past, the prevailing thought geared around one’s total calorie intake , but upon further discovery it has been found that not all calories are the same. In fact the type of calories you consume has been linked to the exploding diabetes and obesity epidemic in western countries costing Canada $14 billion every year. The solution seems simple, stop eating sugar. But for the majority it isn’t that easy. In fact, sugar has been shown to be more addictive than cocaine and due to the processed nature of our food it is in nearly everything we consume on a daily basis. Sauces, frozen food, yogurt, salad dressing, granola bars and cereal all have sugar or high fructose corn syrup making these items no better for you than a candy bar regardless of the “zero fat” or low calorie advertising. This makes it nearly impossible for Westerners to remove such toxins from their diet completely.
So why does everything have sugar in it these days? Why is it so difficult to avoid for the average North American? In the 1960’s the sugar industry began funding nutritional science. As a result, much of the attention and blame was shifted away from sugar and towards healthy saturated fats. These industry sponsored studies, pushed the Western society into a “low-fat” fad, resulting in the removal of fat from many items and replacing it with large amounts of sugar, in order to make these items taste good. The end result was a population consuming a whole lot of sugar, but gaining no real nutritional value while at the same time, avoiding the healthy fats that we very much need.
As mentioned previously, healthcare costs related to these diseases are significant, but the good news is that there are solutions if governments direct their efforts to the prevention of poor diets and keep the food industry in line. The banning of trans fat is a good first step and all countries should look to do the same. The dangers of the overconsumption of sugar are finally beginning to be understood, which will hopefully reduce intake and improve health. It would also be wise to stop subsidizing corn, to limit the ease of use of high fructose corn syrup in many popular products and junk foods. Instead it would be best if we could switch those subsidies into healthier food alternatives to make it more affordable for people to eat healthy.
We are fully aware that people will not want to stop eating candy bars (or processed food) regardless of their health impacts. Therefore, initiatives that attempt to reduce the harm of sugar are extremely important. This is an area in which giant food conglomerate, Nestle, is making significant strides in developing a new hollow sugar which has the potential to cut sugar quantities by 40%, without affecting its taste. While this initiative certainly isn’t the sole answer, it is a good proactive start to help people eat healthier, without drastically having to alter their food choices. We need more companies to focus on making changes like this in order to help promote a healthier society. Only with increased public awareness and education will the food industry make the appropriate healthy changes to their products. This is crucial for our long term health and wellbeing because, at the end of the day, you are what you eat.
The Summerhill Team