This is an extremely difficult topic. Nutrition is an exceedingly inexact and complicated science. Exploration to date is far from complete. Research continues to reveal how little we really understand the vast complexities involved. We have more studies, facts, and nutritionists telling us how we should eat, yet as a whole we eat worse today than ever before. The modern world is inundated with competing theories on what the best diet is: low-fat, low-carb, vegetarian, paleo, raw, and on and on and on. How did our ancestors know what to eat? They didn’t have scientists telling them what was bad and what was good. Yet despite this, they survived and had a much less schizophrenic relationship with their food than we do today. So, what guided them? Tradition.
There is a danger with our modern understanding of food science to assume we have a complete understanding of what nutritional inputs are required to sustain a healthy body. That our ancestors ate the way they did only because they had to. Why did our ancestors eat “icky” things like liver? Because they couldn’t afford to waste anything. Why did they eat sauerkraut and other pickled vegetables? Because that’s how they preserved the harvest without freezers. Why did they eat sourdough bread and porridge? Because the technology to create fluffy white bread and breakfast cereals didn’t exist!
But… what if it turns out we needed to eat all those things we’ve cast aside in our modern diet. What if our bodies are adapted to requiring concentrated sources of nutrients found in foods like liver, an active ecosystem of bacteria found in foods like sauerkraut, or whole grains that are rendered digestible only during a long fermentation process? These are just a few of the better understood scientific reasons. Who knows what other essentials of human nourishment we have passed up in our rush to “modernize” our diets.
The modern diet
The modern diet includes many manufactured foodstuffs never before ingested by man, such as corn syrup, soy lecithin, canola oil, MSG and artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners. Even our familiar standbys, those foods that have existed for millennia, have been corrupted! Fruit and vegetables are grown with nutritionally devoid synthetic fertilizers, then liberally dowsed with pesticides. Beef no longer comes from healthy cows who spend their days roaming the fields and grazing. The vast majority of beef today comes from sick and dying cows who are stuffed into small pens and fed corn and soy. Even the cows don’t get to eat their natural diet!
Many ingredients are refined into substances devoid of nutrition, then select manufactured vitamins and minerals are added back in to ‘enrich’ the stripped food. Unfortunately, this substance in no way resembles the original from which it came. Common examples include whole wheat flour becoming enriched white flour and mineral salt becoming white table salt.
And then there’s corn, the powerhouse of industrial food transformation! Corn can become corn syrup, corn starch, and corn oil. Since corn is the feed of choice for livestock, it even becomes meat, eggs, and dairy! Corn has also been bred to produce a high yield with very low nutritional inputs. All hail the mighty corn! It can thrive in a nutritional vacuum and then be transformed into all the things we want to eat… which are therefore also devoid of nutrition.
We’ve forgotten the food preparation techniques our ancestors used to unlock the full nutritional potential of their foods. Food prep today is all about how fast something can be made. There’s no time for the slow preparation techniques of old.
Many plant-based foods contain anti-nutrients. These compounds inhibit the absorption of vitamins and minerals. Traditional food preparation techniques break down these anti-nutrients so the vitamins and minerals present can be absorbed. High concentrations of anti-nutrients are found in seeds. These include: grains, legumes, nuts, and other seeds. However, seeds are also powerhouses of nutrition. After all, they have to contain everything needed to feed a new seedling. Cultures of old flourished after they discovered how to properly make bread and other nutritious grain preparations, unlocking the nourishment needed for human health.
Let’s take a closer look at a typical loaf of bread to highlight what’s wrong with today’s system. The airy, bright white, and tasteless white-bread of today bears very little resemblance to the hearty loaves of yesteryear. Today’s white-bread starts in a factory with refined white flour, refined white sugar, water, and laboratory yeast. The only nutrition present is from the flour, which has been re-enriched with a specific selection of manufactured vitamins and minerals, a pale reflection of the numerous and complex compounds of whole wheat. The yeast used has been specially bred to eat the added sugar as quickly as possible in order to make the bread rise. In 30 minutes the bread is ready to bake. The end result is a bread shaped package of starch and air, sold in supermarkets as “food”.
Conversely, back before the days of refined white flour and laboratory-bred instant yeast, bread used a whole-grain flour and took a lot longer to make. The ‘old’ breads were made using the sourdough method. Even with an active sourdough culture, bread took a day or two to make. Whole grain flour is chock full of both nutrients and anti-nutrients, while refined white flour has neither. During the long process of making bread, the yeast and bacterial cultures present in the sourdough culture break down these anti-nutrients. The culture even adds in some extra nutrients of its own while it digests the dough. So at the end, a loaf of whole-grain sourdough bread contains all the nutrients from the whole grain, minus most of the anti-nutrients, plus additional added nutrients from the culture. Quite the difference!
Modern foods are created ‘perfect’. They have unnaturally long shelf-lives. You will never find a worm in your apple. Cream no longer separates from milk to rise to the top. We can always buy that uniform chicken breast, steak, or bacon, never worrying about the rest of the animal. If buying individual ingredients is too much, there are plenty of frozen entrees just waiting at the store. Our food is so much easier today.
And really, perfection isn’t a bad thing! It just isn’t realistic for actual food. Our bug-free fruit and vegetables contain toxic pesticides. Chemical sprout inhibitors are used on root vegetables like potatoes and ginger to prevent them from sprouting. Homogenized milk has less usable calcium; pasteurized milk contains fewer vitamins and no enzymes. By only eating specific cuts of meat from animals, we miss out on all the nutrients contained in the “less desirable” cuts, especially the organ meats. The desire for a long shelf-life has meant that foods traditionally eaten raw and full of probiotics are now pressure cooked and canned, again depleted of nutrients. Pickles are no longer lacto-fermented cucumbers, but instead cucumbers cooked in vinegar. Beer, wine, and cider have their cultures killed through pasteurization or by adding sulfites and/or other compounds prior to bottling to extend their shelf life.
As for prepared foods, even many organic ones, you put your food quality in the hands of someone typically trying to produce a desirable product using the cheapest ingredients they can get away with in the shortest amount of time. To disguise a lackluster taste, many manufacturers liberally season these concoctions with artificial flavors, MSG and/or sugar. There is little incentive for requiring a product to be a healthy food choice, so buyer beware!
So, how do we navigate the murky waters of the industrial food age? Without tradition to steer us and abundant imitations masquerading as wholesome traditional foods, we need new guidance. Together we can work to rediscover the traditional style of diet we’ve lost.
Nourishing Traditions – Sally Fallon covers the topic of traditional eating, complete with hundreds of recipes for the home cook!
The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Ever stop to think about where our food comes from? That’s the question explored by Micheal Pollen in this fascinating book that follows the food chain of Americans.