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Is Organic Always Better?
The Movement Toward and Away from Processed Food
In recent years, a growing number of Americans have been looking to consume more local, organic, and/or natural foods. Many people believe that the mass produced, processed foods found in typical grocery stores contain all sorts of unhealthy chemicals – preservatives, food dyes, and god knows what else – that have some long term negative health effects. And even those without huge amounts of mystery chemicals are too salty, fatty, sugary, or lacking in anything resembling nutritional value.
While much of this comes from a very legitimate desire to be healthier, there is also an element of nostalgia in this desire to go natural. People remember the good old days when people got their food straight off of their own farms or bought it in markets filled with products produced locally. It is important to remember, however, that natural did not always mean healthy. Because people were eating and drinking things that had not been processed in any way and because chemical preservatives had not been developed yet, some of this stuff carried nasty diseases, parasites, and other “natural” agents that could kill you or at the least make you feel like crap. While modern people increasingly see mass produced, standardized, processed foods as either unhealthy, bad tasting, or boring, many of those at the dawn of the industrial age saw modern food production as a blessing. When you opened a box, can, or bottle at a modern grocery store, at least you knew what you were going to get. Today, we worry about the long-term effects of some of the chemicals that make mass food production possible. Two hundred years ago, a person buying food in a town or city was more worried about dropping dead or throwing up all over the place a short time after dinner was over.
Modern food production is one of many things about the industrial world that we modern folk take for granted. When we drink water out of a bottle or faucet, or we eat something from a box, can, or bag, we operate under the assumption that it will do no harm. It is similar to our expectations when we flip a switch, hop on a plane, or go online. We just assume that things are going to work. In a sense, modern companies mass producing food are victims of their own success. Because we Americans expect to be healthy, and we cannot remember a time before the dawn of modern food production, we want more out of our food. And because we live longer than ever, increasing numbers of people are sticking around long enough to experience the negative effects of the processed foods that we eat.
Synthetic is not all bad and natural is not all good. The trick in many cases is finding the happy medium. We humans, however, have a tendency to go to extremes. For decades, mass produced food transported over long distances was the dominant model. I suppose it is only natural – pardon the pun – that we would eventually see some backlash against this. Anyone who has ever eaten tomatoes straight from a garden in the backyard knows that it tastes way better than a tomato shipped (green) across the country and sold in a grocery store. You have to make sure, however, that you wash that backyard tomato well and that it has not been infested by tiny critters. But at least you know where it came from.
I don’t have a big enough backyard, of course, to feed myself completely, and there are all sorts of things that I cannot grow or raise there no matter how hard I try. Still, we may have finally reached an age where we can safely produce a wide assortment of foods, transport them over significant distances, and store them on shelves without using all sorts of strange pesticides, preservatives, and coloring agents. It is only recently that humans began eating stuff filled with exotic, manmade compounds, so we should not be surprised if these have some unexpected, long-term consequences. When in doubt, it is probably best to be as natural as possible. It may cost more in the short-run, but if you plan on sticking around for a while and care more about feeling good on a daily basis than saving a few bucks, it is well worth it.