First we loved our microwave ovens for making it possible to heat up food in seconds, then we started to worry about the effects of radiation on our health. First we praised plastic for its durability, now we can’t get far away enough from the toxic stuff.
A number of other innovations intended to improve food preparation and preservation, as well as the activity of eating itself, have actually had adverse effects on our health. In The Atlantic, Bee Wilson, author of a book entitled “Consider the Fork,” describes how technological advances that have made eating more efficient have also created new problems.
1. Forks Have Changed Our Teeth
Wilson cites archaeological evidence showing that, up to 250 years ago, most people had an edge-to-edge bite like that of apes. As the use of forks and knives became routine, we started to eat smaller bits of chewy food; previously, we had had to bite down on a hunk of anything hard, or slice it with a knife (or rip it with our fingers). Indeed, the same change in dental structure has been observed 900 years ago in China, when chopsticks first came into use.
2. Copper Pans Contain More Than Your Meal
Copper pans that were poorly lined can give people gastrointestinal illnesses as the result of copper poisoning. Even though cooks were told to have their pans re-tinned, many did not do so because, says Wilson, “they liked the green color they gave when cooking pickles.”
3. Refrigeration Preserves Food But Also Bacteria
Of course, the invention of refrigerators and freezers has been a huge boon, vastly expanding the kinds of foods we can eat and keeping them fresh for far longer periods of time. But some bacteria, including Listeria and Clostridium botulinum, can survive or even develop at low temperatures — just because food is in the freezer doesn’t mean it is safe.
4. Too Much Stew Is Not So Good For Your Teeth
On the one hand, the rise in the use of pots (some 10,000 years ago) has been only positive. As Wilson points out, “Until the cooking pot was invented, no one who had lost all their teeth would survive into adulthood. There are no traces of edentulous — toothless — skeletons in any population without pottery.” Thanks to pots (and now, blenders and juicers) we can cook foods that are so soft they can be consumed without any chewing.
However, switching from a diet of foods that requires a lot of jaw action to one of primarily soft foods can lead to the development of cavities. Within one generation of leaving the Outback to live in cities, Australian aboriginals whose diet became based on refined white flour and sugar soon had much more tooth decay.
5. Processed Food Takes a Lot Longer for Our Bodies to Process
As is too often noted, more and more people eat a diet consisting heavily of processed foods and few fresh, raw ones. Pulverized kale, carrots and radishes do go down quicker than a salad of the same. But Wilson notes that eating more processed foods has been linked to the “current obesity crisis.”
Our bodies need more energy to digest less-processed foods. We therefore receive less energy (in the form of calories) from eating a whole apple with the skin still on than when we gulp down applesauce. Even more, processed foods full of preservatives take longer for our bodies to break down as this video by Stefani Bardin, a TEDxManhattan fellow, reveals in gruesome detail. Preservatives are added to food to give it a longer shelf life, but this can mean that a eating a bunch of gummi worms means they will be gumming up your intestines for a while.
As Wilson notes, “the aim of mechanized food processing was to save time and effort, but an unintended consequence may be contributing to the worst public health crisis of this generation.” Could it be that we’ve made our food too easy to cook and to eat, to the point that we need to stop the big rush to get all of our breakfast in a bar (or cup of juice) and make sure we do some good hard crunching and chewing?
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