We’ve always eaten processed foods – but here’s when they became unhealthy

canned and canned foods Getty Images/Kathrin Ziegler

canned and canned foods Getty Images/Kathrin Ziegler

In recent decades, the term has “Processed foods” has had a negative connotation with it. So much so that many consumers shudder at the thought of consuming something filled with artificial flavorsadditives and synthetic ingredients that are too difficult to even pronounce.

Whether you love them or hate them, processed foods are here to stay. And they continue to dominate the food industry at an astonishing pace. A recent assessment by Access to nutrition initiative found that about 70% of the foods sold in the United States are unhealthy. In the same spirit, new research from Northeastern University’s Network Science Institute stated that 73% of the US food supply is ultra-processed. And a recent study published in American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that only a small number of US policies target ultra-processed foods, underscoring how ingrained these foods are in a standard American diet.

It’s hard to imagine a time when processed foods were considered healthy. But that’s exactly how their origin story goes. It’s no secret that our ancestors were experts in food processing. The fermented to create alcohol and dairy products. They milled and baked to produce bread and pasta. And they preserved to enjoy the salt, salted meat and seafood. Such techniques allowed early humans to “travel farther and survive cold winters or severe famines,” according to BBC. They also improved the cooking process and made food consumption both nutritious and enjoyable, which is why food processing continues today. Cooking introduces new flavors and makes them more digestible. Fermentation helps introduce new nutrients (think kimchi and sauerkraut which are rich in probiotics). And pasteurizationpickling or brining maximizes the shelf life of all foods so they can be enjoyed over longer periods of time.

However, things took a turn in the 18th century when John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich – the eponymous inventor of sandwich – made his own sparkling water with a little help from chemist Joseph Priestley. The water was specially made for Britain’s navy, which embarked on long sea voyages with limited supplies of fresh food and water. Fresh water could only be stored for a few months before it went stale or became too dangerous to drink. So sparkling water was the best – and safest – option.

Priestley prepared a vessel of “water impregnated with fixed air (carbon dioxide),” he described in one 1772 pamphlet. He also believed that the drink could prevent scurvy, saying: “Generally, the diseases in which water impregnated with fixed air is most likely to be useful are diseases of a putrid nature.”

Carbonated water did not, but it inspired the creation of medicinal water or tonic water with added quinine from the bark of the cinchona tree. It ultimately inspired the creation of caffeinated “cola” drinks in the 1890s, which were used as digestive aids. Made from kola nuts and coca leaves, the drink was advertised as a “ideal brain tonic” at the end of the 19th century.

The modern rendering of Coca-Cola is the opposite, given that it is loaded with sugar, natural flavors and numerous synthetic chemicals. In the middle of the 20th century, World War II, the space race and a generally faster pace of life led to food processing as we know it today. The working middle class also grew in size, leading to a greater need for quick, long-lasting, convenience foods. Thus began spray drying, evaporation, freeze drying and the use of preservatives, all of which made packaging and preserving food much easier. Then came artificial sweeteners and colors that helped foods taste and look better.

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“The home oven, microwave, blender, and other appliances provided an easy way to quickly prepare these meals. Factories and mass production techniques made it possible to quickly produce and package foods,” explained the Automated Process Equipment Corporation (AEPC). “This development paved the way for globally popular foods like frozen dinners, instant noodle cups, baking mixes and more.”

These techniques are still prevalent in our current food industry. New technology and scientific innovations have also enabled food to be altered in ways we couldn’t imagine before – concoctions of chemicals can now look, taste and feels like real food. Overall, it is important to be aware of the health consequences of consuming processed foods. Doesn’t mean they should be removed from your diet completely. A healthy balance is key to enjoying them in moderation.

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