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Processed food has existed prehistorically yet in the form of very traditional practices like salt preservation, steaming, and sun dying etc. Countries like America and Europe had persisted in the use of the traditional ingredients originated from the earliest immigrants of England and Scotland.
However, after the industrial revolution these practices metamorphosed and took the form of more sophisticated, technological practices. Increase in the fertilized land in America led the farmers to grow more corn and hence corn became a fodder for the livestock and the by-product started being used for whisky and thereby an era of food processing begun (Steven, Mintz).
With the industrial revolution, new ingredients were being discovered. These included chocolate, sugar and coffee etc and could not be consumed raw. Hence the new techniques of food processing developed including the vacuum bottling technique for tinned food and the concept of canning as proposed by Peter Durand in 1881.
Further, the more significant discovery came from Louis Pasteur in 1862 when he advanced the idea of reducing the amount of harmful pathogens in the food that may cause certain diseases and taken further by introduction of sterilization that aimed at killing this bacteria completely (Steven, Mintz).
Moreover fuelling the chemical processing was globalization, which escalated the early 19th Century. Cultural and ethnic pluralism meant a more diversified variety in the eating patterns hence the emergence of fast food industry and ethnic cuisines became a prerequisite for food processing. Apart from the early immigrants from England and Scotland, more and more Germans, Italians and Africans came to America and so this demanded more varieties in the food being offered.
The changing economic state of Europe and USA in specific and the evolving lifestyles and cultural and political values of these countries contributed towards the emergence of convenience food. Food then became a political and cultural identity. Also, a proliferation of different ethnicities meant that more and more varieties of seasonal fruits had to be made available in all seasons.
Hence food processing took the form of spray drying, freeze drying, artificial sweeteners, and colouring agents. Therefore, the dried soups, tinned vegetables and canned fruit juices became common ration items on the American kitchen shelves. The trend has had a tickle down effect globally whereby a stage was set for massive trade in convenience food.
The study aims to examine and closely scrutinize the proposed advantages of processed foods and the concerns that outweigh these possible advantages.
Pasteurizing and (UHT) Ultra Heat Treatment with the use of preservatives and antioxidants has brought about a new era of food sustainability and the food colorants and artificial sweeteners have introduced massive variety in food, incorporating the previous era of mass production and at the same time facilitating mass customization in modern era of individualization in demand.
Marketers have massively benefited from the introduction of such genetically modified foods. However, the social and personal costs to the human body and society are unprecedented.
According to the British watchdog, National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), processed food causes 4000 deaths annually in Britain alone. The damages to organs in animals and in humans include cancers, allergic reactions, nervous and immune system discrepancies and behavioral problems amongst many (Szwarc).
The study aims to identify and analyze these challenges of food processing and the concerns that have plagued the society since they have been practiced. The purpose of the study is to incorporate the advantages and disadvantages of food processing and refine my current understanding of processed foods and its detrimental consequences on the users. Hence the topic under study holds relevance to our society and will further strengthen the case against processed food.
This convenience has measurable benefits which extend to both the consumers and the marketers, in the form of increased sustainability of the food which enables perishable items to be marketed, distributed and used over a longer period of time and the incorporation of modern lifestyles to the meal preparation allows individuals to face less stress. Thus as mentioned above, it allows for mass customization to achieve competitive advantage in the food industry.
For example, the use of food processing has allowed producers to incorporate and produce various varieties of the same food to target certain niches in the market. The removal of toxins ensures that the food remain fresh and does not become stale as quickly as fresh food does especially in the case of baked items. The use of salt and sugar as preservatives avoids foods from growing moulds or bacteria and hence the increase usability of tinned and canned dried food items (Szwarc).
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Food processing also includes heat treatments like UHT (Ultra Heat Treatment), spray drying, simmering and baking etc. The heat treatment makes proteins more digestible and food healthier for those with weak immune systems and also the elderly. Hence the UHT milk, despite its potential disadvantages, is healthier for those who want to gain weight and similarly, heat treatment helps kill bacteria which maybe otherwise harmful (Szwarc).
Moreover, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in USA claims that the food which is canned or frozen as soon as it is harvested, can be have more nutrient value than fresh foods (Szwarc). This is to say, that these food items, if frozen or canned immediately after harvest, have less chance of contamination or of catching bacteria in the air. Further, research also shows that Lycopene present in tomatoes are better digested when cooked, and so are carotenoids in colored vegetables which make the case for processed foods much stronger.
Doctors also medically recommend them as part of the anti ageing treatment in women (Puristat). Furthermore, cooking foods like poultry, minced beef and eggs is essential to remove the most dangerous bacteria of all, salmonella. This bacterium is known to cause severe food poisoning, allergic reactions and even death. Most prone to these dangers are pregnant women, children and the elderly (World Health Organization).
Further extending the debate is the dangers of genetically modified food, which is also a form of food processing. The distortion of DNA in natural foods not only harms their nutrient content but also the taste of products. This process was initiated in the early 1900’s to address the food shortages. However, it involves certain ethical issues as well. The genetically modified potatoes contain lectin, which is dangerous for the intestines. However, efforts have been made to mitigate the effects of these GM crops and seeds (Puristat).
However, on the other hand, processed food has gained considerable criticism because of its detrimental consequences on human health. Processed foods typically contain Trans fats which are declared by a nutritionist from Harvard, as “the biggest food processing disaster in the US history” (Reader’s Digest). Trans fats alone have caused 30,000 to 100,000 deaths due to heart diseases each year in the USA and the reduction of trans fat in the diet can reduce the risk for heart diseases by 53%.
They are essential ingredients for coconut oils, lard etc. (Reader’s Digest). Another harmful ingredient is the refined grains which can increase the risk of heart diseases by 30%. Processed foods like soups, soya sauce, and fries contain high amounts of sodium, access of which can be detrimental for the health (Reader’s Digest).
Furthermore, the use of certain preservatives like nitrates causes asthma, vomiting, and headaches. Nitrous acid can be cancerous and the use of benzoic acid in carbonated drinks, margarine etc is known to cause severe allergies and even death.
The use of sulfur dioxide reduces Vitamin B and hence the nutrient content of apples and bananas or any other fruits that have the tendency to become brown when exposed to air. Antioxidants like BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene) and BHA are also harmful for the nervous system and major organs including the liver (Puristat).
In case of artificial colourings that are used most extensively in food industry are derived from coal tars. There are more than a thousand flavourings used in the world today and al of them is originated from the coal tars. Hence countries like Norway have banned the use of food colourings in food industry because of the debilitating nature of its origin.
While on the other hand, artificial sweeteners are known to cause hyperactivity and bladder cancer. They are also known to cause behavioral discrepancy as shown in the study in the literature review. The use of emulsifiers like propylene glycol is skin toxic. Flavorings including monosodium glutamate cause frequent mood swings depression and chest pains (Mayo clinic Staff).
Hence this shows the amount of psychological and physiological damage that processed food can cause harm to humans and animals. So from an ethical perspective, I believe processed food should be banned or at least some components used in it like Trans fats should be banned and the world should go back to organic food.
The use of red colored dyes in foods has been researched and analyzed by Shuji Tsuda, who talks about the toxic nature of this colorant in food industry. The study aimed to experiment on 4 groups of pregnant mice and male mice in Japan and their organs including liver, kidney, and stomach were closely scrutinized for study after the use of amaranth. It showed a considerable amount of DNA damage in the bladder, stomach and colon of these mice.
Although, the nature if the study is controversial in terms of the experiment conducted on animals, yet the study provides valuable insight. The use of these colorants in foods including jelly, custard, biscuits, and strawberry mousses or beverages is commonly consumed my masses. Hence the prolonged use of this colorant can cause damage to the vital organs of human body which stipulates the harmful nature of processed foods.
The article, Chemical Food Additive Exposure during Pregnancy, composed by Richard Pressinger in 1997 further illustrates the drawbacks of processed foods.
The article highlights the traditional use of food colorings through natural plant and vegetable components prior to 1950’s and how this has changed intensely to include an augmented use of chemicals, which are detrimental to human body after the industrial revolution. Apart from the measurable harm caused to human body, these chemicals are known to cause behavioral disorders as well.
Children develop attention deficits and hyperactivity with the prolonged use of such colorants and hence 20-50% of the children developed improvements in these two behavioral aspects after the removal of these colorants in their food intake. The use of all colorants, not just the red colorant as proposed by previous research, is known to cause learning difficulties in children if taken excessively during pregnancy (Pressinger).
The Study by Mayo Clinic Staff discusses the various advantages and concerns of using artificial sweeteners as part of the processed foods. Whereas one gram of tabular sugar has about 4 calories, artificial sweeteners have no calorie content. Hence it is an important proponent for loosing weight especially in the case of diabetic patients.
As these are not carbohydrates, they do not cause the sugar level to rise. Further, they do not cause tooth decay as compared to tabular sugar. However, they also have certain disadvantages. Research has been conducted on rats, as mentioned and explained above, and resulted in the positive relationship between artificial sweeteners and bladder cancers.
Thus for decades, they have been a cause of concern of general population as well as the health institutions like the WHO. However, newer study negates this relationship and makes artificial sweeteners safe to consumer, because of the controversial nature of these sweeteners, the use must be regulated by the FDA in USA (Mayo clinic Staff).
The research paper on the adverse effects of acryl amide in processed foods shows the amount of danger these products so readily available in the markets have. This antioxidant is present in fried chips, breakfast cereals, and potato chips etc, products, which are easily available in all supermarkets and are highly consumed by the people. The concentration of this antioxidant in foods has been a source of concern for the international health institutions like WHO (World Health Organization), Swedish National Food and the European Union.
The research demonstrated that this antioxidant is known to cause cancer on the experimented animals and so posed the same threat to human body as well. Individuals consuming high amounts of it are more prone to cancer than individuals whose intake is less. Further, research showed that turmeric, which is a natural traditional ingredient in many foods, acts as an emulsifier to acryl amide. It neutralizes its harmful effects.
And so the traditional Indian dish “Aloo Paratha” which contained acryl amide in potatoes and also contained high amount of turmeric, was found to be very healthy as with the introduction of turmeric, the adverse effect got eliminated. So it shows that the traditional ingredients are far healthier than the processed food and it makes my case against processed food stronger (Nadu).
Considering the above given argument, I believe that processed food should be banned or at least some of its most harmful ingredients should be prohibited. The harmful components in processed foods including the Trans fats and excessive sodium inflict a social cost to the entire society, and the harm inflicted to a human life is unprecedented.
Hence it is not an ethical practice to allow processed food industry to thrive as one of the most profitable businesses around the globe, despite a wide awareness of its detrimental consequences. Alternative ways of food preparation should be incorporated and organic food should be made more readily available to adapt to the changed life styles and food patterns of modern day consumers.
Mayo clinic Staff. Artificial Sweeteners: Understanding these and other sugar substitutes. 2010. Web.
Pressinger, W, Richard. “Chemical Food Additive Exposure during Pregnancy.” Pediatric Neurology (1978).
Puristat. Digestive Wellness Center. 2006-2011. Web.
Reader’s Digest. Health: 4 Most Harmful Ingredients in Packaged Foods. 2011.
Steven, Mintz. Food in America. 2011. Web.
Szwarc, Sandy. Junkfood Science. Processed foods aren’t real food. 2007. Web.
World Health Organization. Salmonella. 2011. Web.