Food is our nourishment and is necessary for life, but it is also much more. It is an integral part of our society and culture. We celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, the New year, religious, cultural and historic events with food.
The meal is our time for receiving life. It is the counterbalance to work, exercise and creative expression. It is a time when we realign with Nature, exchange ideas and share socially, a time for receiving rather than giving.
However, the way we view and relate to food has changed dramatically over our 12,000 years of recorded history. These changes are guided by modern science, technology and industry and in many cases have made us feel separated from each other and Nature.
Let’s start at the retreat of the last ice age in northern Europe, about 12,000 years ago. At that time food was scarce. Agriculture was not discovered yet and we had a hunting and food gathering economy.
There were two noteworthy developments then— the cultivation of foods began and boats were invented. These two events made development towards modern society possible.
This period when northern Europe was largely covered by ice and snow created the myth that our ancestors primarily ate meat. Cold temperatures in Europe made food cultivation difficult before and necessitated eating more animal products.
This pattern of eating animal foods changed with the warming climate and the ability to cultivate foods. Advances in the arts of building also aided this process of civilization. The first villages appeared about 9,000 years ago. This was a time when modern grain crops, barley and wheat, began to be cultivated. Animals were domesticated and bred, and pottery and weaving also developed.
The cultivation and consumption of cereal grains as human food led to development of modern societies as we know them today. If we follow the history of food we get an interesting perspective on the development of our modern civilization. The diet throughout the world was generally stable for thousands of years. Unrefined grains were the staple foods in all major civilizations in temperate climatic regions.
The various cereals were used as whole grains, cracked grains, breads and pastas and over time grains became synonymous with cultures. Rice in the Orient; bulgur, couscous, pita and chapatti in the middle East; bread in Europe; buckwheat, millet and rye bread in Eastern Europe; oats in Britain and corn in the Americas.
Animal and dairy foods were used mainly as supplements to grains, beans and vegetables. Animal foods were often used for holidays and celebrations. Dairy products had their place in more extreme climates and mountainous regions. They were often used the way miso and shoyu, fermented soybean products, were used in the Orient.
This dietary pattern continued until the time of ancient Greece and Rome. They introduced cuisine’s from far away places and the diet in temperate western climates became mixed with tropical foods, sweets and spices.
These tropical foods cause our blood to become more acidic than any other foods. We loose minerals and other nutrients in trying to neutralize the acidity. Depleted nutrition then lowers our resistance to infectious illnesses. Though the diet was mainly natural quality and unrefined, the mixing of temperate and tropical foods changed disease patterns throughout the western world more than two thousand years ago!
The 15th and 16th centuries, when trading and conquering were abundant, brought the next important changes. Foods that were once local became more widely distributed and diets became more confused. Tropical fruits and vegetables became abundant and began to be cultivated in Europe.
The potato, which was indigenous to Chile and the Andes, was introduced to Europe by the Spanish. It widely gained acceptance over the next two hundred years and began to replace cereal grains in many cultures. With the tomato, these two foods conquered Europe more than any other foods.
There are five foods that are harder to give up than any other: potatoes, tomatoes, oranges, bananas and sugar. They are all tropical and highly acidifying to our blood.
The Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries was the period that had the greatest effect on changing the modern diet other than World War II. During this period Britain, Europe and then America began changing from agrarian to industrialized societies.
This was the beginning of modern technology. The technology was not only used to improve the quality of life but it was also used in agriculture and food refining. For thousands of years foods were grown on a small scale and consumed in their natural state.
Technology made refined foods, especially refined grains, available on a wide scale. There were some refined grains such as sifted flour used before, but it is difficult to do this at home by hand.
Refined foods caused imbalanced nutrition. Nutrition is a fine balance, one nutrient is needed to absorb and utilize another. Once the natural balance it altered is easy to build up excesses of certain nutrients and deficiencies of others.
Many refined foods also make our blood more acidic. Minerals create a buffer action to neutralize the acidity. Refined grains lack minerals. The greatest stores of minerals are in the bran that has been removed in the refining process.
Refined grains also create the need for the increased use of animal and dairy foods. We crave to supplement the nutrition lost in refining. Increased animal and dairy foods in turn increase our cravings for sweets.
These changes eventually led to the cycle that is the trademark of the modern diet, a diet high in refined foods, animal and dairy fats and sweets. It was also the beginning of the development toward modern degenerative diseases. These diseases have had their greatest increases around the beginning of the 20th century and again following W.W.II.
Technology also changed farming. Farming started to become mechanized and many people lost their work. They had to look for work in the newly industrialized cities.
The discovery of the steam engine made this possible. Transportation and communication were easier than ever. However, the change from rural to city life began changing peoples’ eating habits and dietary proportions.
Life no longer followed a natural order according to the sun, moon and seasons. Life began to conform to a business week with its mechanical regularity throughout the weeks, months and years.
Nutrition became even more imbalanced. With the new pressures of modern industrialized life, slowly physical and mental degenerative diseases began to increase.
World War II brought two more devastating changes to our food. The chemical industry developed for the war was also used in food preservation and agriculture after the war.
Before W.W.II, relatively natural quality foods were still available commercially. You could still find whole grain breads, locally grown vegetables cultivated with little or no chemicals, natural pickles and animals raised without hormones and antibiotics.
Modern food preservation is a result of W.W.II. They tried to make foods that would last indefinitely for over-seas soldiers. This may be practical for war but cannot sustain health in the long term. Chemical preservatives essentially take the life out of foods. They make dead foods that cannot sustain health.
Living foods are changing. Traditional methods of food preservation, dried, pickled and cold storage, maintained or sometimes improved the usable nutrition. They preserved the natural quality of the food.
For example, sun or smoke drying increases vitamin D. Natural pickling and fermentation produces digestive aiding enzymes and vitamin B-12. These foods are still living and are slowly undergoing subtle changes. But modern preservation destroys the nutrition and food quality.
Frozen fruits and vegetables also increased during this period after the war. Analytically these foods may be similar to fresh produce but our bodies cannot be fooled. Nutrition is more than can be measured in a laboratory.
Chemicals were used in agriculture also. Petroleum based fertilizers began their widespread use after W.W.II. Slowly the soil changed from living matter, teaming with life, to inert matter.
The excessive use of these fertilizers has destroyed any living matter in the soil and has transformed it to the inert material of petroleum. The soil in commercial farms is more closely related to plastic than soil. This type of soil can only produce lifeless foods.
The loss of minerals, micro-organisms and other life forms including worms produces weak crops that need pest and weed killers. These additional chemical further weaken the crops and our immune systems with it.
It is interesting that crops losses have increased year by year since the late 1940’s. This loss is proportionate to the increased use of chemical in agriculture. The soil is not very different from our own immune systems. Our immunity has decreased with the excessive use of antibiotics.
We have truly entered the era of modern degenerative illness. We now expect to die of a degenerative illness, especially heart disease, cancer or diabetes if an accident does not claim us first.
The diet and food quality in the west slowly deteriorated until fast foods were introduced in the early 1960’s. Complete meals could simply be heated at home in the oven in a few minutes. The original fast food restaurants began spreading throughout the United States and England.
This coincided with the birth of the hippie and the break from traditional values of society. Hundreds and thousands of years of tradition disintegrated overnight.
Slowly the family meal began to disappear with the new ease of getting quicker and seemingly more efficient meals. It fit in perfectly with the modern technological lifestyle.
Cooking on electricity began to increase and the microwave oven was introduced. Both helped to lessen our sensitivity to food and cooking. The microwave was especially convenient for quick cooking.
The family meal is the ‘glue’ of society, it provides a sense of belonging and stability in life. The dinner meal is very important because it gives us a chance to reunite and share our experiences with the food. It keeps the lines of communication open and clear. Now that the family meal has dissolved order in society has begun to change. Families are breaking down and crime is increasing steadily in all industrialized nations.
This is the completion of a cycle. Food that was once natural and shared for proper physical and emotional nourishment and social enjoyment has deteriorated to an almost mechanical process.
The meal does not fit into a busy schedule. The demands of modern business are great and do not even allow us time to stop work to eat. We have lost touch with nature and our ability to respond to the changing seasons. Our true human feelings are getting lost and confused. We can no longer enjoy and be guided by the natural rhythms of life.
It is time to reflect on where science, medicine and technology are taking us, on the nature of food and the value of sharing a meal and breaking bread together. Food is our connection to life and can carry our dreams and memories from generation to generation. It is again time to enjoy food as our celebration and appreciation of life.