Samui Wining & Dining
Due Process

The truth is – very few processed foods are bad for you!


8E-numbers. Additives. Processed foods. To which I could probably tag on cholesterol, fat, salt and sugar. All of these have become twitch-words over the last generation or so – ever since we all suddenly became health conscious back in the late ’90s.

    But then even that, when taken in a broad social perspective, occurred more because of relentless media pressure than anything else. True, by the ’90s America had been suffering for quite some time. Fast food and microwaved TV dinners had been the nation’s staple diet for the best part of two generations. But this simply didn’t apply to the rest of the world, where fresh food and home cooking remained woven into everyone’s way of life; well, at least once or twice every week!

      But that didn’t stop the press, periodicals and TV jumping full tilt onto the health-scare bandwagon. It was fright-fodder, guaranteed to attract millions of anxious readers when headlined boldly enough. Legends arose about food preservatives containing chemicals found in paint stripper and hairspray. Legislation arose about fully itemising the preservatives and

additives in our food – which only gave the ranters more clout as they further linked all these chemicals to unrelated industrial applications and shouted even louder.

       Possibly the only good thing to have come out of all this, 25 years on, is that Joe Public is now far more aware of health in general, and in particular the part that a well-balanced diet plays in it. The downside is that we’ve all now become conditioned like Pavlov’s dog to unthinkingly reject anything with ‘bad words’ on the label. And the word ‘processed’ has become utterly unacceptable.

       When applied to food, the word ‘processed’ means nothing negative in itself. It is simply an adjective which indicates that the food in question has been treated in some way. This has been going on for many thousands of years, and the human race is still thriving. Cave dwellers discovered that meat would last longer if cut into thin strips and dried in the sun. Soldiers, sailors and other travellers throughout the ages knew that meat and fish could be preserved by smothering them in salt. Foodstuffs could also be preserved in vinegar or alcohol. All of these foods have been ‘processed’ in one way or another. It’s only in the last half-century or so that synthetic chemicals have been applied for the same effect – sometimes with unpleasant consequences.

      It’s hardly surprising that more sophisticated methods began to emerge after the period of the Industrial Revolution. One of the first was by the French chef and inventor, Nicolas Appert who, in 1809, perfected a vacuum-bottling technique that later would be used to supply French troops with meat, chicken, milk and vegetables. This was to become supplemented by Louis Pasteur, who discovered that heat killed harmful bacteria, and announced his process of ‘pasteurisation’ in 1862.

      But it wasn’t for another 100 years that further advances were made. The depression of the 1920s led to vitamins being added to dairy products in America and, a decade later, the following world depression brought about rapid-freezing techniques, spray drying (and, incidentally, instant coffee). Not one of these processes was actually harmful in any way; the worst that could be said was that the last few depleted the vitamin content of the produce. But it was the post-WW2 period that became uncontrollably dubious, although this wasn’t realised until several decades later. This was a period of consumerism and innocent glee, as symbolised by the American government proposing atomic devices for blasting-work on civil engineering projects, and even sponsoring the designs for a domestic kitchen powered by nuclear fission. Irradiated food quietly appeared on the supermarket shelves of several nations. And chemical additives and preservatives began to be used across the board, unrestrained by the same sort of lengthy trials and testing that were needed in the general pharmaceutical industry.

      And the rest you know. It’s a part of our recent history. It’s the source of endless urban legends and the reason why today, all additives and preservatives are carefully monitored by the authorities. But to lump this all in together with the procedure of ‘processing’ food is both foolish and misleading.

      You only need to thoughtfully consider some of the world’s leading five-star gourmet chefs and their approach to food to realise how nonsensically-negative it is to write-off ‘food processing’ all across the board. Because it all depends on how you go about it. At one extreme of the processed food chain you’ll find waxy squares of packaged cheese slices, bleached white sliced bread, and vacuum-sealed tubes of grey, pressed, turkey chippings on every supermarket shelf. But at the other extreme, at the cutting edge of gourmet technology, top chefs are scientifically ‘deconstructing’ the essential flavours of meat, fish and vegetables into their molecular components and re-presenting these in the form of tiny cubes of jelly or layers of foam, to enhance their expensive and well-subscribed menus.

      And if that’s just too unrealistic for you, consider this. Even those chefs who take a more traditional approach to their cuisine now universally employ sous vide techniques of slow cooking, involving vacuum sealing and low temperature cooking. Is this not food that’s being ‘processed’?

      In order to be utterly safe and totally pure, you’d need to either grow or buy fresh vegetables. You’d have to raise your own (or buy) organically-fed meat and poultry, slaughter it yourself and cook and eat it before it could naturally bio-degrade. You’d bake your own bread, fresh every day. You’d drink your milk straight from your cow or goat, warm, without either freezing or pasteurising it. Your fruit would be eaten only when it was ripe, and not preserved or made into jams. All of which, unless you’re not working, have an independent income, a farm, no young children and all the time in the world to spend on food fads, is all rather silly. Make that totally nonsensical.

      The fact of the matter is that probably 75% of the healthy food we eat today has been processed in one way or another – unless you live in a third-world country and subsist on a never-ending diet of rice and fish. (And even cooked rice becomes mildly toxic if left for a day without any ‘processing’.) The knack here is to be intelligent, thoughtful, aware and selective. And that’s an attribute that the avaricious press and other media really don’t want anyone to possess – it sells no papers!

Rob De Wet


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