Here’s the short answer: Processed and fast foods will shorten your life but there’s a solution—home cooking. Home cooking, however, only happens if the family sits down to dinner together. No cook is going to prepare a nutritious meal for itinerant grazers. So it’s simple: dine together, get better food, live longer.
I grew up in a family of ten children; we lived in a happy home, but two events of my parent’s childhood cast a long shadow. Our father, as a child, nearly died of an infectious disease that settled in his hip. The doctors gave up all hope; he survived, I think, simply because his mother willed it. From the disease came two defining marks: a pronounced limp (plus a few operations), and a strong belief in healthy food. Our mother’s father was a hard rock miner; he had gone down into the mines at fifteen to support his family and consequently died of pneumonia at the young age of 32. Without a man in the home our mom and her mom barely survived the Depression. The hard times left our mom with a strong work ethic and a deep-rooted thriftiness. My parents—pictured above—came of age in the Big Band Era and never lost their love of dancing to romantic music.
A couple of decades ago mom mentioned—with a tone of surprise—that all her friends had given up cooking. They had reared their families, cooked thousands of meals, and as their husbands were retiring, they did too. Now they ate at restaurants, fast food joints, grabbed some take-out, or simply snacked. And they died, first the husbands, then the wives. My mom is in her early 90s now; she still cooks, drives, pays the bills, and never misses sending a birthday card to her children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren. But she misses her friends. Want to live longer? Cook! (A future post will discuss other benefits of dining as a family.)
Cooking is a process, and the big trend of the last century was the industrialization of food processing formerly done in the home. My wife’s father grew up on a family farm where they did most of their own food processing using traditional methods. The creamery where they churned butter and cultured cheese still stands. Their town had a mill, by a stream, to grind their wheat. Across the way, a relative kept a fire going to smoke hams. They dried apples by spreading them in the sun under cheesecloth. Pickling preserved the cucumbers. When cabbage began to go bad, they fermented it into sauerkraut. In retrospect, I see their processing had the sole objective of preserving their crops just enough to get them through the winter.
Industrialized food processing—whether milling flour, baking your bread, raising chickens in a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation), or serving up a fast food meal—has different objectives. It’s all about costs, sales, and profits—the things you can quantify. Nutrition, so hard to measure, doesn't stand a chance.
As noted before, my first job out of college was for Procter & Gamble, a food processor (though better known for soap). The P&G business model was to take a food commodity and apply technology to make a marketable change. Their first success, Crisco, made with hydrogenated cottonseed oil and introduced in 1911, displaced lard as the preferred cooking fat. P&G then used their hydrogenation technology to offer the convenience of cake mixes (Duncan Hines), peanut butter (Jif), and then a snack food (Pringles). To save time in the kitchen, P&G bought Folgers and offered instant coffee. These processed foods illustrate the food trends of the last century: modernity (Crisco was pure white and odor free), convenience, time-saving, and snacking.
Food Processing Revisited
The nutrition movement of recent years has made a good start at reforming the food processing mistakes of the past century. Here are some processes revisited and the emerging consensus decision:
1. Production of white, bleached flour with roller mills? Rejected. Wheat should be made into flour close to the time of use, or frozen after milling. Do it at home, or petition your health food store to add a wheat grinder (more on this in a later post). Rejected also is the practice of artificial enrichment; better to preserve the real nutrients.
2. Production of vegetable oils (and trans fats) through chemical extraction and hydrogenation? Rejected. As noted here, use olive oil, butter, or cold-pressed coconut or sesame seed oils.
3. Margarine? Rejected; as noted here, butter is healthier and tastes better.
4. Pasteurization of milk? This one is more complicated; we’ll visit it in a later post. In the past the raw milk people seemed a little weird; now they’re making more sense. I have, however, stopped drinking reduced fat milks.
5. Genetically modified plants? Rejected. We should follow the example of the Europeans and avoid this practice because the consequences are unknown.
6. Baking bread in factories? A compromise here: we buy whole-grain bread that meets the “fiber-greater-than-sugar” rule but bake our own too.
8. High fructose corn syrup? Rejected, along with the excessive use of table sugar. A prior post, recommended natural sweeteners like fruit and honey in moderation.
9. Sugary drinks like soda pop? Restricted to one per week, though I feel good when I don’t have any. Filtered water is the best drink of all.
10. Fast food? Rejected. Even when traveling we can find better alternatives. Fast food can serve a purpose, but the menu must be totally revamped (deep-frying especially) and they will only do that if they see their business disappearing.
11. Restaurant chains? Avoid most of them; we’ll visit the healthier ones in a future post.
12. Factory-made chips and crackers? Reject most of them; we’ll visit the chip aisle in the next post and maybe find a few that qualify. Like soda pop, they’re better as an occasional treat.
What processed foods are okay? Please comment and share your favorite but healthy processed foods.