Processed food: friend or foe?

To stay healthy, we need to eat a balanced diet from a range of nutritious foods including meat, fresh fruit and vegetables, and quality processed foods.

By Jeremy Ryland


One of the growing trends I have discussed over the past weeks is the rise of vegetarianism and vegans. This is probably a good thing as generally we consume too much meat. Man is an omnivore and should eat a balanced diet that provides us with all of the nutrients we need.


There is no doubt that a fresh plant-based diet can be healthy, varied and exceedingly satisfying – and probably healthier than many fast food diets. However, eating meat and cooking food made us human and enabled our brains to grow dramatically over a period of a few million years. Science has shown that it would have been biologically implausible for humans to evolve such a large brain and become Homo Sapiens on a raw vegan diet. Eating meat was crucial to the development of mankind.  


Cooking also makes us human. All animals eat but we are the only animal that cooks. Cooking is indeed a symbol of humanity. Cooking foods destroys pathogens, releases nutrients and makes food easier to digest. You do not need to eat as much cooked food as raw food to get the same nutrition. And over the millennia our jaws, teeth and stomachs have evolved to be smaller and more suited to a modern diet.


Whilst veganism, flexitarian, reducetarian, etc., are all established eating styles, they are largely the result of modern affluence. The current protests and guerrilla tactics of a small minority of vegans are irrational, as it is impossible to feed the world’s population with a nutritious, balanced diet without farming, without meat and without food processing.


There is an assumption that processed foods are a new phenomenon, and that it is seen as a mark of sophistication to reject modern processed foods whilst yearning for fresh and natural products from the past. However, this yearning for the past is based more on wishful thinking and erroneous perceptions than on fact. Fresh is not always best and processed food has been with us for centuries.


For our ancestors, natural was often nasty. Natural often tasted bad. Fresh food was often unsafe, inedible and subject to seasonal scarcity. Fresh meat was smelly, tough and went off quickly; fresh milk was warm, sickly and soon soured; eggs went rotten; fresh fruits, when available, were sour; fresh vegetables were bitter and many were toxic. Seasons of plenty were followed by seasons of hunger.


Past diets were monotonous, unreliable and nutritionally unsatisfactory, and our ancestors spent a considerable proportion of their time in the processing and preparation of foods that we now take for granted. They soon learned that processed and preserved foods kept well, were easier to digest and were delicious – raised white bread instead of chewy porridge; thick nutritious heady beer from prickly barley; olive oil instead of bitter fruit; wine; cheese; sauerkraut; tea; yogurt and so on. Food processing methods, such as salting, drying, threshing grains, pickling and preserving, were developed many thousands of years ago.


It is the development of modern food processing that has given us the choice of today’s fresh food. Our food supply today is fresher and more natural than for many decades. Modern advances in refrigeration, distribution and food science ensure that we have a regular, reliable and abundant supply of quality, nutritious, uncontaminated, safe and affordable foods.


As a result of advances in food production, nutrition, food availability and food safety has improved, and our life expectancy has increased so that instead of living for 30 years we can now live for 70 or more. Due to modern farming practices and food processing, we no longer have to spend most of our day hunting and foraging for food and we have time for relaxation, socialising and other activities.


If we have a problem – it is overabundance – food is cheap and plentiful. We can enjoy most foods all year round: foods that were once special are now commonplace and we don’t know when to say no. We do need to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, but we also need to eat less – and we still need meat.


Australian farm practices are amongst the best in the world and animal welfare is important. Feeding the world is a complex and contentious subject. We have to ensure that both humans and animals are treated well. As omnivores at the top (or almost) of the food chain, we need a balanced diet from a range of nutritious foods including meat, fresh fruits and vegetables, and quality processed products, such as yoghurt, olive oil, cheese, pasta, bread, soups, beer and wine.


As Michael Pollan* puts it… "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. And treat meat as a side dish rather than as a main".