Conservation Corner

Pauline Lee

Just what is processed food? Why is it the cause for our epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and chronic health problems? How does food processing damage our environment? Concerned about the health and environmental effects of processed food, 26 year-old Megan Kimble, a food writer in Tucson, decided to spend a year eating only unprocessed food to find out what difference it would make. In 2015, she published a book about her uncharted journey, Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food, to share a captivating, informative tale about the food we eat and how it’s processed.

As Kimble lived a year eating mostly unprocessed food, she discovered food is processed to different degrees as it travels from the farmer’s yard to the consumer. As man has modified his lifestyle over thousands of years, from a hunter-gatherer, to a farmer, and now to a city resident, these changes have been accompanied by alterations in how food is grown and processed before eventual consumption. In our country most consumers live in cities and not on farms, thus they depend on buying whatever is in the stores.

In the mass production of food, the producers get more profit using industrialized farms to grow plants and to keep cattle in tight spaces. In the case of monocultural farming, single crops, grown on a very large scale, rely heavily on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. And animals in meat production are fed a high-calorie grain based diet, often supplemented with antibiotics and hormones to maximize their weight gain. Their waste is concentrated in disease-ridden feedlots. The combined runoffs of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and cattle wastes pollute our waterways and fresh water. These pollutants destroy our environment.

To transport farm produce to consumers in the cities, the fresh products usually are refrigerated in transit to delay spoilage. However, in the 20th century manufacturers have stepped up the processing of food by packaging and adding additives to not only extend shelf life, but to change the taste of food and increase convenience. Ready-to-eat processed foods are packaged in many different ways with plastics, cardboard and paper. According to the EPA, these materials end up as one third of the municipal solid waste in landfills. The many additives to the processed food are unnecessary and can be unhealthy. It is estimated that 70 percent of the general public’s food consumption is such processed food, leading to chronic health problems.

We should mandate manufacturers to decrease the unnecessary additives to lower the incidence of chronic health problems. In response to consumer pressure, manufacturers have removed trans fats from their processed food. We need to be vigilant in reading labels on food packages so we will not be consuming extra sugar, salt and fats. Many foods like yogurt and nuts are sold in unflavored form or as varieties with added sugar, salt and fats. Choose to buy the unflavored variety and add healthy flavors yourself.

Next month this book review will conclude with Kimble’s new conclusion about our food choices.