We might like to think that the food choices available today are as healthy today as they were when our great-grandparents were young. But like with most things, the way we eat has changed drastically in the last century. What's more is that our diet has changed in such a way that it is increasingly linked to the onset of chronic illnesses like obesity and diabetes, as well as contributing to environmental degradation. In exploring the history of food and its connection with modern health risks and problems, we must firstly examine its evolution, followed by the changing trends in dietary habits over the last century, an examination of the health risks related to processed foods, and finally, the role of agribusiness in today's world.
The Evolution of Diet
What we eat has come a long way since our hunter gatherer days. Although what exactly our ancestors ate is impossible to know for certain, it is thought that hunter gatherer diets relied heavily on wild animals and fish, as well as gathered nuts, fruits and some plant material. This is in contrast to what we eat today, where diets are typically centered around domesticated animals, cereals, sugar and processed meats. Meat and animal products have always been an important part of the human diet, but the amount and type of animals we consume have changed drastically over time.
The Shifting of Dietary Habits
The dietary habits of early humans changed dramatically once they stopped relying on hunting and gathering and started cultivating their own crops, around 8000 years ago. This was the dawn of agriculture and with it came imported new forms of food, particularly cereals and legumes, into the human diet. This meant that fewer animals had to be hunted and killed, and the animals that were killed were usually cows, goats and pigs, rather than wild animals. With the dawn of the industrial revolution, a large switch towards processed and packaged foods was seen. Processed food, made with refined sugars and fats, became increasingly popular and has been linked to the rising number of lifestyle diseases we are seeing updated.
Processed Foods and Health
It is a well-established fact that processed foods, those made with heavily refined ingredients, are significantly less nutritious than those made with whole foods such as fruits and vegetables. Although the technology to refine foods existed for centuries, it was not until the mid- 1900s that it became widespread, leading to an increased focus on convenience and less focus on nutrition. Processed foods are generally high in fat, sugar and salt and as such, they have been linked to an increased risk of developing chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes.
The Impact of Agribusiness
The advent of agribusiness, or the large-scale production of food to meet the growing demand, has had a significant impact on what we eat today. Agribusiness has made it possible to produce the same foods in large quantities, at cheaper prices, meaning that customers get more bang for their buck. Unfortunately, this means that food production is often focused on profit rather than health outcomes. This means that unhealthy yet cost effective foods such as highly processed meats, oils and sugars are often prioritized, leading to increased consumption of these unhealthy foods.
In summary, the history of food has gone through a range of drastic changes over the last century. We have shifted from diets mostly consisting of wild game and gathered nuts and berries, to a diet centered around heavily processed and refined foods. The widespread consumption of these processed foods has been linked to an increase in chronic illnesses such as obesity and diabetes. Finally, agribusiness has become a significant force in modern food production, leading to an increased consumption of cost-effective yet unhealthy foods.