Health food by definition is food that keeps you healthy. How did there come to be food that doesn’t add to health? After all we eat to stay alive and being healthy is a natural part of staying alive. We can imagine a time when all food did this; we grew or raised what we ate with little or no processing or additives needed. So what happened that we started making the distinction between health food and other food?
Food usually earns the ‘un-healthy’ label when we begin tinkering with it or processing it. Of course many foods are not edible unless we process it in some way, cooking grains for example. Many foods don’t give up their full nutritional potential unless they are processed. Animal products, vegetables and fruits can be eaten raw. Grains, beans and legumes, the three main vegetable protein producers can be eaten raw when green (before drying) but their main advantage is their ability to be dried and stored for future use. In order to be consumed, dry grains, beans and legumes have to be processed. Their ability to be stored in mass quantities for future use made these products the foundation of our current civilization.
The first un-necessarily processed foods were grains and flours. Initially milled to take out the spoilage producing germ layers these products were generally reserved for the nobility initially due to the high cost but later because of their white ‘purity’. White flour and milled grain could be stored for much longer periods of time but many important vitamins, mineral and oils are lost through this process. With the introduction of refined cane sugar from India cakes and pastries became popular with the nobility and upper class. Lower class use of these products were reserved for special occasions.
When food production in the Americas was industrialized beginning in the 19th century, many of these processed food products formerly reserved for the nobility and upper class became affordable to everyone. The allure of these foods was irresistible to the typical European immigrant of the time.
Bread made from various grains had been the basic staple food product for the vast majority of the western world since ancient times. Bread through out the ages has taken many different forms from simple flour and water flat bread to the yeast raised version we are familiar with today. During the 19th century, bread in this country increasingly meant white flour biscuits made with baking powder as a leavening agent. The baking powders of that time were made with various health damaging ingredients all vying to produce the lightest and fluffiest biscuit. To this day some baking powders use aluminum in their recipe even though aluminum is known to cause Alzheimer’s disease. These powders were the precursors of the processed food chemical additives that are so prevalent today.
In this country the term health food became popularized by the Seventh Day Adventists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A Christian sect whose adherents promoted vegetarianism and abstinence from tobacco and alcohol, the Adventists saw much suffering and disease that they attributed to the poor diet of the time. The bulk of the American diet consisted of white flour, sugar, canned food and animal products. Coffee, alcohol and tobacco use was almost universal.
The newly industrialized meat packing industry of the time was totally unregulated. The apathy and greed of the industry as a whole led to unhealthy practices that caused meat products to be associated with poor health. Public concern eventually led to a governmental investigation and the creation of the FDA and food industry regulations.
White flour was considered unhealthy by this new health food movement and a host of ailments were attributed to its use. Whole grain flours and cereals were promoted to replace them. Whole grain cereals were introduced to replace meat and eggs for breakfast and soy products, beans and vegetables were suggested as healthy replacements for the main meals. Canned food consumption was frowned upon due to the contamination of the food with the heavy metals in the can.
Alcohol, tobacco and coffee use of that time would make today’s usage pale in comparison. The movement against tobacco and alcohol took on religious importance and led to the eventual temporary outlawing of alcohol in the United States.
World War II brought about a great change in how we viewed food and food production. The surge in industrialized output, new chemical additives and preservation techniques coupled with women’s entry into the work force caused us to see food preparation as more of a burden than a celebration.
Women had by and large been the traditional food preparers in the typical family. Many hours each day were needed to turn the raw ingredients into meals. When increasing numbers of women entered the work force time saving alternatives to the traditional meals became a necessity.
The new mass produced mentality of the food industry needed new preservation techniques to enable nation-wide distribution of their products to maximize profits. Chemical preservatives, coloring agents, stabilizers, texture enhancers were all employed to produce products that looked and tasted like the traditional home cooked products but could be stored and shipped all across the country with minimal spoilage and could be prepared at home in a fraction of the time. Fast food restaurants became a fixture on the landscape of our increasingly fast paced culture.
The 1960’s saw a resurgence of the health food movement due to the rejection of the ubiquitous processed foods. Health food was to be found in a bulk bin and cooked at home or produced for sale with minimal processing and no preservatives or additives. Whole wheat bread, yogurt, soy products such as soymilk and tofu and sugar-less products became the standard bearers of the health food industry.
Today a return to more traditional food preparation techniques, scientific evidence of the debilitating effects of chemical food additives and processing techniques and medical recognition of the effects of food on our health have helped health food take its rightful place as an integral part of our culture.