How the modern diet fails
These principles of healthy eating contrast starkly with the diet that is increasingly common in the West. Whereas the diet of our pre-industrial ancestors was rich in fresh produce, the modern diet, which has evolved over the last 50–60 years, is characterized by food that contains preservatives, colorants, taste enhancers, sugar, caffeine and even traces of fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and metals. This leads to a proliferation of unhealthy bacteria in the gut, an accumulation of toxins in the body, poor digestion and an increased likelihood of allergies, cardiovascular disease and cancer of the colon.
In the West, food is abundant (the amount produced far exceeds our needs) and relatively cheap owing to modern production and processing techniques. These techniques have created what has been termed “food industrialization” – the production of large amounts of food quickly and cheaply at the expense of quality and nutritional content. Paradoxically, although we now have more choice in what we can eat, less time is devoted to the selection, preparation and consumption of food. Our diets often consist of a limited number of ingredients that we continue eating out of routine and convenience.
Much of the food that we buy is impoverished. For example, when fresh produce is out of season in one country, it is often imported from another, and much of its vitamin content is lost during transit or storage in refrigerators or on supermarket shelves.
Goodness is also depleted in the process of sterilization: in order to make fresh food “safe” and prolong shelf-life by eliminating micro-organisms, it is often sterilized or irradiated – yet this procedure renders it, quite literally, lifeless.
Although all unhealthy disease-causing bacteria are killed in the process, all the “good” bacteria and ferments are also destroyed.
These are important for digestion and in maintaining a healthy and balanced environment in the gut. Most milk, for example, is pasteurized, with the result that it does not contain natural ferments and is difficult for many people to break down and digest. Milk products that have not been pasteurized, such as live yoghurt (which is full of lactobacilli bacteria), are well tolerated by most people.
Another consequence of sterilization is that, if food is left out of the refrigerator for too long or is reheated too many times, micro-organisms, such as listeria, will re-establish themselves. Without competition from good bacteria, the unhealthy ones can proliferate unchecked and cause disease.
Industrialized food production is partly responsible for a range of contemporary health problems such as male hormone imbalance (linked to the misuse of hormones in animals), the advent of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria (linked to the routine addition of antibiotics to animal feed), salmonella in poultry and eggs (linked to poor living conditions among animals), and Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (linked to bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE, a disease affecting cows that is caused by contaminated cattle feed).
Genetic modification of food is the latest in a catalogue of food-production experiments that I believe may have harmful long-term effects on human health and the environment. The defensive attitude of scientists who argue that “no evidence exists that genetically-modified (GM) food is unsafe” needs to be challenged – this kind of negative statement does not constitute proof that GM food is safe.
Due to the wide-ranging effects of food industrialization it is important that, as consumers, we make informed choices about what we buy – not just favouring foods that are unprocessed and grown according to organic principles, but also excluding products that are nutritionally-empty and preserved and enhanced in artificial ways.