Humans have grown and evolved over thousands of years and our food has evolved slowly with us. This process has been extremely slow and our body has adapted very well to the foods we had been eating up to a century ago. Over the last 100 years we have been bombarded with thousands of new substances that our body has not quite had time to adapt to. This is one of the reasons for such an epidemic of chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, cancers etc.
The food that surrounds us in abundance today is cooked by big machines with various artificial and ‘natural’ substances. Such food also called processed food usually contains numerous ingredients that one normally does not use in a home kitchen. Processing may also involve removing substances from food or altering the food from its natural state. Examples are homogenization of milk and forming sugar from sugarcane. Food resulting from such complex processing that can not be done in home kitchens may not always be the best for us.
Why do we continue to buy processed foods when we are increasingly aware of their adverse health effects? There is no single or simple answer. Our behavior, motivation, education, health awareness, socioeconomic status all play a role.
Food ingredients directly may influence our choice to pick certain foods over others. There are some theories emerging through various scientific research and analysis of various food ingredients.
a) Some ingredients may increase food craving and increase hunger.
b) Sugar may cause a pleasure response similar to that caused by illegal drugs.
c) Sugar, salt and cheese may have addictive potential.
d) Various flavor enhancing agents suppress the recognition of satiety by our brain. The ability to feel full is compromised by the action of these agents on our brain.
Food companies have been using these properties of various ingredients to increase the consumption and craving for their food products. With all these internal and external hurdles we face, yes, it is difficult to break the habit and craving for these delicious and tempting foods.
When we are at the dinner table with our family and friends we enjoy their company and we relish the flavor of our meal. That is not the time and place to think if the food is good or bad for our health.
Seated at the table the amazing aroma of butter, garlic or basil reaches your senses, you see the delicious food on the plate in front of you. Almost hypnotized by the aroma and sight of this meal you start eating and it just melts in your mouth. After a few bites your mind starts to wander…..does it contain monosodium glutamate? What is the protein content? Does it have hydrogenated oil? What about sugar?……like a news headline ticker at the lower third of TV screen, the thoughts keep moving in the background while you take those delicious bites. You conclude that you have made a healthy food choice and you congratulate yourself. You stay motivate to do the same for next twenty or thirty meals and then you come across an irresistible food creation. You just want to enjoy this one in full screen without the news headline ticker rolling at the bottom. You suppress all those questions about additives and nutrients and you realize you enjoyed your meal so much more. So you say to yourself “ to hell with healthy food. Im just going to enjoy what I eat and not worry about counting calories and food preservatives”.
This is what most of us go through whether trying to lose weight or simply trying to eat good. Depriving ourselves of the tempting food by focussing on the health aspect is very difficult. After all we are not getting sick immediately after eating and who knows what will happen in 5 years from now. There is nothing certain in life so why not enjoy the moment. This argument wins most of the times when presented with the tempting sight, smell and flavor of a delicious food.
So let us stop fighting our basic instincts of being tempted by food. Instead let us learn more about the food we love. Let us start by reading NOT the harmful effects of various chemicals but let us start by knowing real foods. If you like pizza or pasta then learn about wheat. Where does it come from? How were our grand parents using wheat?
If you like tamales or tacos then learn about corn. How is corn grown? Where did corn originate? How did our ancestors use it? What are some traditional corn recipes?
How are different fruits and vegetables grown and prepared into foods in different cultures? Where and how various animal products are produced?
To some it may sound depressing to read about food in order to enjoy it. People were not reading about their foods 100 years ago. That is because they grew up knowing their food closely. They produced the food themselves in their yards and kitchens. If they did not produce it they asked questions - who sells it, where and how does it grow, is it pure or adulterated, how much does it cost, is the quality worth the cost? What food and for what occasion the food is being cooked, who is cooking it and how? Yes they knew it all and it was an essential part of feeding the family.
Fast forward few decades and we have very different criteria for choosing our food. We see the food taste, amount, price and is it ready to be eaten without much effort and time for preparation. The tastiest food in least amount of time. However, we know little about what actually it is that we buy and how was it prepared.
When we start to get interested in learning about foods we eat we gain another level of love and respect for our food. The food our grand parents were enjoying did not need to be put in categories of “high fiber” or “low carb”. It was either every day food or special occasion food. We start to learn about the close link between earth, food and humans. We start to appreciate food in its natural state - the smell of fresh carrots or the texture of wheat berries.
When we learn about processed foods and the industrial food system it is tough to face some bitter facts such as many of the ingredients are not even food. It is distressing to recognize the devastating impact of the industrial food system on earth. No matter how unpleasant it is to learn these facts it is also essential to understand the food system. Only then we can make fully informed choices about our food, same as our ancestors did.
Ignorance about our food, as a society, is what the food industry is benefiting from. We also are naive to have so much faith in the food companies. We listen to the health claims and advertisements. We look for the right amount of protein, the good kind of fat, the least amount of calorie and sugar. We look for the words ‘natural’, ‘organic’, ‘no artificial flavoring’ and happily pick the box off the shelves when we find them.
Yet we may often forget to ask ourselves the most basic question - How and where was it made and what does it contain? Can it be made in my kitchen? Would I use these ingredients to cook food?
As we get more interested in knowing about food, we discover the delectable tastes of freshly cooked food prepared with love and attention to both the food and the person it is prepared for. Very often these are the easiest of recipes using few simple ingredients and with methods passed down from generations.
We discover that real strawberries added to a plain yogurt has better taste and appearance than “natural flavors” and “red 40” in a store bought flavored yogurt. Cooking at home is a must to break the habit of processed food. Basic, simple cooking does not take more than 30-45 minutes and this includes cleaning the kitchen.
Respect for various cuisines, interest and curiosity of knowing various foods and reviving the love for home cooked meals is what makes processed foods uninteresting and unappealing. You will not see yourself fighting with temptation for processed food as it will not appear to be food anymore. As you discover the potential of various basic foods and spices you will be tempted by the thought of what would stew in your kitchen. And when you are at the dinner table you no longer will need to think about the protein, fat or fiber in the food because you have cooked it using the recipes and ingredients humans have been thriving on for generations. You will talk about the rich garlic flavor in the soup rather than wonder about the salt content or if acesulfame potassium affects the health.