We’re getting fatter: 60 per cent of the UK population is overweight; a quarter of us are obese. Cancer is beginning to look like an epidemic. Millions of us appear to have developed food intolerances, such as to foods that contain gluten or peanuts. The numbers of people who report symptoms of inflammatory gut disease – everything from irritable bowel syndrome and coeliac disease to Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis – keep climbing. What’s happening?
You don’t have to be a Sherlock to test the theory that our diet, now so reliant on heavily processed food, is, at the very least, a contributory factor. Back in the 1930s, the writer and political activist George Orwell warned in no uncertain terms where the move away from home cooked, real food might lead us: “We may find in the long run that tinned food [the only processed food that was around then] is a deadlier weapon than the machine gun.”
Are we leaping to an unjustified conclusion when we lay a significant part of the blame for our current predicament at the door of processed food? There are several grounds for seriously examining this possibility.
Firstly, food manufacturers combine ingredients that do not occur in natural food, notably the trilogy of sugar, processed fat and salt, in their most quickly digested, highly refined, nutrient-depleted forms. Might these modern constructions be addictive? That proposition is gaining airtime.
Secondly, manufactured foods also contain man-made chemicals, in the form of colourings, flavourings, preservatives and such like, that have known toxic properties; although we are reassured that at low levels, this is not a cause for concern.
Thirdly, the processed food industry has an ignoble history of actively defending its use of controversial ingredients, such as partially hydrogenated oils and dodgy colourings, long after well-documented, subsequently validated suspicions have been aired. The precautionary principle just doesn’t figure in the convenience food industry’s calculations and, such is the lobbying power of this influential sector, it does not loom large in the deliberations of our would-be regulators either.
The bottom line here is that there are already reasonable grounds to infer that a diet heavy in processed food is bad for us. So isn’t it time to start operating our own personal precautionary principle by eating less of it, and cooking more of our own food from scratch from whole, unprocessed ingredients?
Joanna Blythman is the author of Swallow This: Serving up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets (Fourth Estate, £14.99)