The Evolution of Food

The United States is the only nation with the ability to spend the least amount of their income on food, adding up to roughly 9.8 percent. Americans have been lucky enough to have financially cheap food sources readily available to them for the past 150 years (Pollan, In Defense 105). However, byproducts of the standard American diet include problems like obesity, the destruction of the environment, and an overall ignorance about the origin of the food we consume. Although the food Americans are consuming is monetarily trivial, cheap food has been proven to be more onerous on our physical health, environment, and psychological well-being than the average American realizes.

Americans have gone from the primitive means of hunting and gathering to acquire food to mass-produced, uniform shadows of natural food products in dominating fast food franchises, most notably McDonald’s. All humans have an interdependent relationship with food: food physically nourishes us and we ensure the crop or animal does not die out. Food communicates with consumers by naturally sending signals to display suitability for the consumer to eat them; fruits signals their ripeness through distinct color, smell, and taste. Ripe fruits visually stand apart from the common green, secreting an alluring sent, and generally having a sweet taste.  Ripeness usually corresponds with the optimal abundance of nutrients in the fruit, therefore the goal for transportation of the fruit correlates with the nutritional interest of the consumer (Pollan, In Defense 102-104). Early hunter-gatherer American societies subconsciously responded to these food signals. Prior to developed agricultural systems, wild plants and animals found in the natural ecosystem were Americans’ only food sources. They mostly survived on fruits, seeds, nuts, roots, and sporadically the flesh of uncultivated animal (Pimentel 51). Hunters-Gatherers expended sixty to eighty percent of their energy intake in securing food and preparation, although they seldom traveled more than six miles roundtrip to obtain food (Pimentel 53-56). The hunter-gather lifestyle was based on sustainability, eating to survive and be healthy. When hunter-gatherers brought food back to their habitat for consumption, some seeds would accidentally be dropped into the soil and later yielding a concentration of grains, vegetables, or fruits. Only the observant would could to associate the fallen seeds with the harvest and societies began to consciously plant seeds to make gathering more convenient. This trend toward food cultivation than led to the purposeful removal of naturally existing vegetation that would’ve been competing with the new growth of crops. Burning became the easiest and most common way to clear the land; burning destroyed the weeds while adding nutrients to the soil that speeded up the germination process of the crops. The early farmers planted crops by puncturing the soil with sticks and dropping seeds into the hole, giving it little or no care after this simple procedure (Pimentel 59). This change meant people virtually did not have to travel to gather food and led to a surplus and land ownership. Early land plots were harvested for about two years then they’d be abandoned because of the depleted nutrients in the soil no longer led the crops to flourish. This type of farming essentially made the land baron for ten to twenty years while the nutrients levels rejuvenated (Pimentel 60). Along with early agriculture, the early cultivation of animals for food consumption developed. Chickens, ducks, pigs, rabbits, sheep, goats, and cattle were the first animals to be kept by humans as a food source. Such animals provide meat, fat, blood, and milk that provided the early Americans with basic nutrients, energy, and protein. Hunters would carry their prey back to camp where they’d feed and protect the animals until they needed to eat them as additional food. Sometimes they’d tame the animals and allow them to reproduce (Pimentel 65).  They also would later herd the animals because they found it more efficient and dependable. The weaker members of society usually did the herding, freeing other individuals to do other necessary tasks for the survival of the community. Herding ultimately provided the answer to the difficulty and unpredictability of crop production (Pimentel 66). Americans commonly preserved their crops and meats through salting, drying, and smoking (Pimentel 186).

Today American supermarkets are flooded with a variety of food products from all over the world. The food purchased at a supermarket is not necessarily locally grown. The increase of diversity in the number of species is a result of a myriad of historical and social factors (Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma 15). The modern American diet contains a huge amount of refined foods, mostly carbohydrates. Cereal grains first refined during the Industrial Revolution where consumers began to favor white flour and rice to natural whole grains. This shift was partially due to glamour and prestige: formerly only the wealthy members of society could afford to purchase refined grains. Refining grains makes them easy to digest because it eliminates the fiber that prolongs the release of their sugars, delivering glucose more rapidly and efficiently. It also prolongs their shelf life, making them more durable and portable. The introduction of rollers that grinded grain in 1870 made refining grain more widespread and by 1880 stone wheel grinders were replaced with iron, steel, and porcelain rollers throughout Europe and America. This major change signified the beginning of the industrialization of American food. Refining foods accelerates absorption by reducing it into its chemical quintessence and it was marketed on image rather that nutritional worth –refined flour is fundamentally America’s first fast food. This minor revolution was made at the expense of nutrients for the consumer. The new rollers also removed the germ of the grain, containing oils rich in nutrients (Pollan, In Defense 106-107). Germ is perhaps the most beneficial nutrient in flour; it contains most of its protein, folic acid, B vitamins, carotenes, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids. The new refined flour had an extensive shelf life but was practically “nutritionally worthless” (Pollan, In Defense 108).

Another major transformation in the modern American diet is the transition from complexity to simplicity in terms of chemical and biological composition. Industrial fertilizers simplify the biochemistry of the soil and therefore produce chemically simplified plants. Widespread use of chemical fertilizers came in the 1950’s, resulting in the deterioration of the nutritional merit of produce. This decline has lead to fortifying processed foods: adding in additional nutrients that may have been lost in the process (Pollan, In Defense 114-115). However, scientists concur, “destroying complexity is a lot easier that creating it;” not all nutrients can be restored (Pollan, In Defense 116). This basic simplification shrank the actual number of species in today’s American diet. Four crops dominate the modern American diet: corn, soy, wheat, and rice –accounting to two-thirds of our diets calories. This is possible because the American government pays farmers to grow corn and soy, subsidizing everything they yield. This simplified diet is unhealthy because we are omnivores that require between fifty to one hundred different chemical compounds; we are not receiving these vital compounds through four crops (Pollan, In Defense 117-188).

This processing of food (refining and chemical and biological simplification) has resulted in the switch to quantity over nutritional quality, resulting in a variety of health problems. The current American diet has suffered an increase in calories along with a decrease in nutritional worth. Since the 1950’s American intake of riboflavin has declined thirty-eight percent, vitamin C by twenty percent, calcium by sixteen percent, and iron by fifteen percent. In concrete terms, Americans must now consume three apples to receive the equivalent amount of iron as one apple in 1940 (Pollan, In Defense 118). This erosion of quality is the equivalent of nutritional inflation. At least thirty percent of Americans have deficiencies in magnesium and vitamin A, C, and E. This lack of nutrition has lead to the return of old-world diseases such as rickets, combined with the sufferer being overweight –leaving Americans overfed and undernourished (Pollan, In Defense 122). Today’s industrial agriculture produces more calories per acre but supplies significantly less nutrition. The two primary causes of this nutritional inflation are changes in the kind of foods we grow and how we grow them. Researchers attribute expansions in agriculture, such as chemical fertilizers, shallow rooting systems, the plant’s genetics, and the soil’s biological activity all contribute to this dietary corrosion. Since the Nixon administration in the mid-seventies adopted an elaborate policy to cheapen food in response to protesting housewives, the American food system has been dedicated to selling colossal quantities of calories at the cheapest price possible (Pollan, In Defense 119-121). By 1980, American farmers have produced 600 more calories per person per day on average, resulting in the expansion of portion sizes with the price of food falling. Since 1985, Americans have been consuming an additional 300 calories, mostly from added sugars and fats (Pollan, In Defense 122). American meat consumption has also vastly changed; after World War II, while Americans relocated to suburbs, American food animals were moved to densely populated cities into the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO). Already in their short history, CAFO’s have created a host of environmental and health problems, including polluted air and water, toxic waste, and fatal pathogens. Both moves were a result of government policies, humans moved because of a mixture of the creation of the interstate highway system, the G.I. Bill, and federally subsidized mortgages while the urbanization of animals is due to the advent of cheap government-subsidized corn. Corn itself profited from the movement of livestock because it left more land available to grow even more corn. Corn actually made meat, which was formerly reserved for special occasions, a household staple because corn was unnaturally forced into their diet (Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma 67). Scientists have found that this dietary alteration makes meat considerably less healthy for humans because it contains more saturated fats, less omega-3 fatty acids, and remnants of antibiotics (Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma 75).

Technology in our daily lives also affect the typical American diet. Most prominently, the invention of the automobile in 1769 has tremendously transformed American society. American car-reliance has changed our dietary patterns and almost directly led to the rise of fast food establishments in America (Wilk 219.) Fast food is characterized by uniformity, convenience, speed, and portability –fast food and cars noticeably go hand in hand. The appearance of mass-produced cars created new consumer demands, piloting the growth of quick-service restaurants. For the first time in history, Americans preferred to eats their meals on wheels rather than around the kitchen table. Staple fast food items, such as McDonald’s McNuggets were designed to be purchased and eaten in the car (Wilk 221).  American diets became “car-centered” due to drive through services and the plethora of locations making instantaneous consumption available in almost “any point of time and space” (Wilk 232-233). Fast food and the car have been engineered to be conducive to each other’s purpose; approximately nineteen percent of American meals are eaten in the car (Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma p.110). Fast food is actually a very American concept: “individual portions wrapped up like presents” were “private property at it’s best” and it is an inerasable symbol of childhood comfort food (Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma 111). The main appeal of fast food is that their products are abstractions that allow the consumers to forget the meat came from an animal (Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma 114). Fast food consists mainly of unhealthy carbohydrates and fat from processed corn along with several entirely synthetic ingredients, such as “leavening agents” (sodium aluminum phosphate, sodium acid pyrophosphate, and calcium lactate) that extend the products shelf life, along with “anti-foaming agents,” including dimethylpolysiloxane, a suspected carcinogen and established mutagen, tumorigen, and reproductive effecter. But the most alarming ingredient is tertiary butylhydroquinone, which is a form of butane i.e. lighter fluid, used to “help preserve freshness” which can be fatal if five grams are ingested (Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma 112-113).

Startling discoveries in the fast food industry combined with cultural backlash caused the creation of the Slow Food Movement in 1986. Carlo Petrini established the movement in response to the planned opening of a McDonald’s next to the Spanish Steps in Rome. The Slow Food Movement aimed to counteract poor dietary habits and “highlight their distinctive identities to the opposition of fast food” (Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma 222). The movement is justly geared toward authenticity, freshness, and uniqueness of food, focusing on healthy eating habits (Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma 227). Americans later established the Slow Food USA movement to specifically focus on the fixing the errors of the American diet and combating the American fast food industry.


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