By Vikas Datta,
Title: Best Before – The Evolution and Future of Processed Food; Author: Nicola Temple; Publisher: Bloomsbury Sigma; Pages: 272 Price: Rs 499
The term “processed food” rings alarm bells for many people, even beyond the health conscious, who wonder what additives it contains and how it compares nutritionally with its “natural” counterpart. But while these concerns about a large component of our daily food intake may seem to be justified, is it required — and is “natural” food even possible?
No, says biologist, conservationist and science writer Nicola Temple — and goes on to show in this book, how almost all the food for humans since the dawn of civilisation has been processed in some form or the other — by fire, fermentation and so on — or has something added for taste, longer shelf-life, etc.
And there happen to be only a few things we can eat directly in our physiological state at the current stage of our evolution, leave alone our busy and complex social and economic lives — unless we want to be hunter-gatherers again or regress evolution-wise. As far as natural foods — fruits and vegetables — are concerned, they start to lose their nutritional value right from when they are plucked and need to be preserved/prepared (respectively) till we eat them.
On the other hand, our growing reliance on processed food has led to a situation where we trust absolute strangers with the key requirement of feeding us — and not all their motivations may be purely altruistic.
However, the first issue, says Temple, is to define some key terms, especially food processing, for this covers everything that is done to food at home — from toasting bread to pickle-making — to what is done by establishments like neighbourhood bakeries or multinational companies.
And then processed foods “are not always the money-grabbing, addiction-forming, obesity-causing products of the big food manufacturers”, though some of them may be either or more or all of the three, she says.
But Temple stresses that her aim is not to hold a brief for processed food or attack it but “to provide a different perspective by looking at how food processing, and more generally food science, gets pushed along the evolutionary path towards the latest new product”.
And in this, she shows how big business, consumer demand, socio-cultural changes, health concerns, scientific and technological innovation, politics, resource constraints or waste and even war, have their roles to play.
“Understanding the journey can perhaps help us identify if and when we started to go a bit off-track. It can help us to become discerning consumers who can identify when innovative ideas might benefit society and our planet, and when they purely benefit company profits,” Temple says.
Beginning with her own childhood memories of “food processing” while growing up in a farm in Ontario, she provides an overview of some of the processes. Temple then goes on to show why food processing became necessary for humans — and what changes it led to in them and their way of living. Here she also deals with the question of which food items are most beneficial — it will help in the vegetarian vs non-vegetarian debates.
Temple then takes up the origins of two of the most ubiquitous processed foods — cheese and bread, and the changing methods of preparing them over the centuries. Next follows how fruits and vegetables too need processing, not only for their demand out of season, but for other important reasons too.
Then she discusses the case of meat, through the medium of the sausage, followed by the critical issue of how salt, sugar and fat infiltrated snack foods (and if they can be removed), the lure of convenience meals, the role of nanotechnology in food processing and preservation and the future of the sector — incorporating both climate change impact and technological advances like lab-grown meat and 3D pizzas.
An accessible account of the biology, chemistry, economics and sociology of food, well seasoned with fascinating facts, perceptive insights — especially about the real cost of processed foods – – and abundant wit, this book is a must read for all those who care what is on their plate and why and how it got there.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)