What is Food?

Food

Everything eats everything else. Every living thing draws its needs from other living things. This is a result of natural selection. Its consequence is the output equals input system of Nature. There is no “waste” in this system. Dead things become input for living things.

Evolution

We can imagine a situation when life first arose. We assume a “simple” single cell organism. It reproduces by division, that is to say, asexually. The diversity of sexual production not yet being let loose upon the Earth. These single cell organisms divide and multiple. Some will die. Theses dead organisms, the first the planet had seen, represented a niche.

These either sat there in this new world or some of the other organisms who still lived had sufficient variation through “error” in their divisions to be able to utilise these dead organisms as a food source. As the variations increased with time, more niches developed.

Wave after wave of variation created niche after niche. As we know from our own experiences, most variations do not advance the ability of a species to reproduce. That is why they are called birth defects. We never hear of birth advantages. These take time to be obvious and are only so when a change in the environment allows these individuals to reproduce when their fellows cannot. Most variations, hair colour and eye colour to but two have no influence on our reproductive capabilities.

Mass Extinctions

If we take the long view, the move from a single species of organisms to the diversity we have to-day, we see a gradual change over time. True enough, there were times when changes were rapid. The KT boundary mass extinction and the end of the dinosaurs are such examples. In general, we can say evolution moves slowly and only reacts, or more accurately, reveals itself in times of change.

Food, as required by each organism, developed within the exploited niche, is a function of the eater and the eaten. Plants, in general, require sunlight and available chemical nutrients from the soil. Animals require a fit between what is available and what they can digest.

If we focus upon animals, not all available food sources are digestible by all animals. Monkeys can process leaves, ruminants exploit grass resources. Humans cannot sustain life on either of these inputs. Each animal requires certain food types to match their digestive tracks. As a percentage of body mass humans have a small stomach when compared with other primates. How this came about is open for debate.

What is clear is we, fully modern humans, are the way we are because of our genes and the environments in which we evolved some 50 to 100 thousand years ago in a period known as the Pleistocene. The available resources then as now were a wide range of plants, mammals, fish, birds, insects and fungi. We survived and flourished because we were shaped by and shaped these resources. For some 90 to 40 thousand years we lived as fisher-hunter-gatherers. Then as now, a part of Nature. We developed gut biota capable of processing the food resources into available forms suitable for sustaining our lives.

Even after agriculture arrived, the change in food resources were not of a degree to disrupt the relationship between environment, individual and gut biota. Changes occurred. Average heights declined as the wave of agriculture rolled across Europe. Populations increased, reproduction occurred. From an evolutionary standpoint, all was good. 

We Are part of Nature

Famines came and went, diseases came and went or came and stayed. Populations survived, struggled, thrived or died out. The species has done reasonably well out of the past 10,000 years. Some individuals evolved or more accurately had, by chance, developed an adaptation which allowed them to tolerate lactose as an adult. This allowed a new resource to be exploited: milk.  

In common with all foods, milk is a substance evolved  through Nature, exploited by an organism also evolved through Nature. Whilst in the West we think of cow’s milk when we envision milk, the majority or human consumption both now and throughout history has been from smaller ruminants: sheep and goats.

Dairy

The cow dairy farmers have done a very good job associating cow’s milk with modernity and other types with the primitive and the backward. Cow’s milk is not as close a fit with human milk as goat’s nor, especially, sheep’s but then dairy milk is not a food for growing human infants. It is a food keeping individuals alive and healthy. The closeness or otherwise of dairy milk to human nursing milk probably doesn’t matter too much.

Given the dairy industry’s advertising efforts we could be forgiven for thinking milk is extracted from animals, pasteurised, bottled and consumed. What actually happens with milk is an industrial procedure. Setting aside the feeding, breeding and management of the dairy herd for the moment, when milk leaves the farm, it is reduced to a commodity.

On arrival at the milk factory, for this is what they are, factories, the milk is broken down into its constituent parts. These are essentially butterfat and skim milk. Over the course of the year the amount of butterfat varies with the feed conditions, the weather, the cow’s inherent natural variation matched to the needs of the calf. These variations matched reasonably well with human needs. To put it another way, there was no evolutionary pressure upon the consuming humans for the variations to create a situation where those individuals would not be able to reproduce.

Natural variation over time and Fordian uniformity are diametrically opposed poles. Remember we are talking about milk factories. The reason milk is separated into butterfat and skim is to allow for a better approximation of uniformity. Given milk is a food appreciated by bacteria as much as humans, transporting it before refrigeration posed problems. The separation of skim and butterfat has a long history to overcome this. The butterfat was churned into butter which, when salted, is far more resistant to bacterial attack and therefore transportable. The skim milk was fed to pigs and to a lesser extent, poultry.

Dairying was part of an integrated matrix of systems designed to use all available outputs as inputs somewhere else on the farm. A dairy farm may well rely upon its milking cows to form the basis of it cash flow but the idea of only having dairy cows was an anathema. 

Specialisation in farming in general has increased exponentially since the Second World War. Dairy farms are no exception. They have become larger and the number of dairy farmers has shrunk. The get big or get out paradigm. To complement this Fordian specialisation, food safety laws were introduced which favoured the larger enterprises over the smaller. Larger enterprises can afford the chemists and food scientists to run the tests proving food safety. Bigger requires these legislative controls because the farmer and the consumer no longer know each other and the agglomeration of many farmer’s milk for distribution to many consumers makes the possibility of public health disasters more likely.

Henry Ford

As the processors became bigger the pressures for a Fordian approaches increased. From an economic point of view, this theory was orthodoxy. To apply Fordian theory required standardisation. The separation of butterfat and skim hand in hand with natural variations in butterfat levels throughout the year led to “standard full cream milk” being defines as milk containing 3% butterfat.

The public weren’t concerned with the variation. The difference between 2.9% and 3.8% on the palate is negligible. Once the milk is added to tea or coffee the effects are diluted even further. 

One consequence of milk made up of butter fat and skim is the natural tendency of the cream to float to the top. A quick shake of the bottle re-distributes the cream through the milk. However, the longer the milk stands the thicker the cream becomes. This acts as a natural defence for the whole product. Cream, being a fat, is naturally acid. Acidity tends to ward off bacteria. Anecdotally I have discovered this milk can be left for a week in the fridge, shaken vigorously and shows no taste difference to “fresh” milk. Indeed, the cream on the top betrays exactly how much the milk has been skimmed. 

Fordian approaches were taken further with the introduction of homogenised milk. This was sold as staying “creamy” without the terrible imposition of having to shake the bottle, as it was then and later the carton. This innovation was foisted upon the public for their own good even though there was no evidence non-homogenised milk was a consumer problem demanding a solution.

The process of homogenisation takes the cream, a substance made up of fat globules and forces it through a grid to reduce their size. Smaller units are less likely to float to the top. They do in fact stay in suspension with the column of milk. I have left homogenised milk for a month in the refrigerator to observe no cream floating to the top. This is not the case with goats’ milk which has naturally smaller fat globules than cows’ milk. It is sold as naturally homogenised when clearly it is not. The fat globules are not altered through a mechanical process.

Who Cares?

Why then does this matter? What does it tell us? Initially it tells us, extrapolating from a single product to the entire industry, changes in our food supply are made for the benefit of the manufacturer not the consumer. The change from free flowing to homogenised butterfat was accepted with barely a ripple of protest. My grandmother’s neighbour was the only voice other than my own at the time who raised dissent. My complaint was based upon taste. I liked drinking the cream off the top of the bottle. Homogenised milk tasted “thin”. Nan’s neighbour resisted for other reasons. I quote, ”I don’t want any of that homosexual milk in my house!” Once her misinterpretation was explained, she happily joined the masses.

Coincidently, or not, the introduction of homogenised milk coincided with the beginning of the obesity upswing. This may just have been a coincidence. I have searched for research into the effects upon the changes in fat globule structure and long term effects upon human health. I can locate no such studies. The thinking seemed to be “cream is cream”. 

Given the speed of change in evolution, the co-dependencies between food and consumer, fiddling around with a basic structure of the food we evolved to consume should raise questions. “Cream is cream” is not so different from “high fructose corn syrup is just a carbohydrate”, as indeed is any form of sugar. The forms we evolved to consume, fructose in fruit, unheated and unsieved honey, are not isolated chemicals. They come with, in the case of fruit, fibre, pulp, peel and so on. Honey contains pollen, wax and a complicated chemical structure. 

The path from food to body is a complex one in itself. It starts with the eyes and nose. We are conditioned to see some food as good for us and some as bad. The sight and smell of a food excites saliva production, readying the other systems for incoming food.

Digestion

The digestion process is the result of a long period of time. Food options are related to digestive bacteria and physical/chemical processes selected through time as efficient enough to ensure the individual has the best chance to reproduce. We are capable of ingesting new and novel food stuffs. Witness the waves of food fashions sweeping the western world over the past twenty years: Thai, Moroccan, Chinese, French, Indian and so on. They underlying commonality of these fashions is their peasant origin. That is to say they came from famine and the concept of not wasting any possible food source. Hand in hand with this is the realisation these foods are real. They are not manufactured, they are not manipulated by industrial processes. The variations in flavour are based upon seasonings as much as the base foods and cooking methods. 

We are, by and large, capable of consuming these cultural variations with only the occasional upset stomach. It is only once the “essential” flavonoids and chemicals are distilled from the cuisines, if such a thing were even possible, and added to processed foods do we end with anaphylactic reactions. We are not evolved to consume food from these processes and long supply chains requiring preservatives.

We evolved to eat plants, animals, fungi and bacteria as they are found in the wild. From this it is possible to argue we did not evolve to consume salted meats and alcohol. That we can is simply a happy coincidence. Both salting and fermentation are methods developed by humans to preserve food sources for times of dearth. Alcohol has been pervasive for a long time in human civilisations. Yet even its origins and use was based upon a health outcome. Water in cities outside of those supplied by aqueducts and sewage systems was a source of disease until early in the 20th Century in the developed world. Alcohol tends to destroy bacteria within the water used to brew beers. 

Salted meats and vegetables were laid down at the autumn harvest to ensure food through the end of winter and into the “hungry gap” of early spring before the first lambs, kids, eggs and vegetables were ready. The idea of eating corned beef, salted mutton or bacon and ham all year round was an anathema. We would do well to follow this example.

That we no longer need to drink beer, even extremely light beer, because our water sources are unsafe that we no longer need to salt meat for the winter has not stopped these products being available every day of the year. This too with apples. An early summer to early winter fruit, depending upon the cultivar and the location, they are now available all year. The energy required to keep apples “fresh” all year is enormous. I ask the question: Does being able to consume apples all year make us happier, wiser, more fulfilled or for that matter, even healthy? This is a question we could and, I believe, should ask of all our food.

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Waste

To see what people take for granted, look at what they waste. In developed economies, ”Food” is everywhere. Estimates of the amount of food wasted in western economies varies from 30% to 60%. All this whilst people still die of starvation. We need to look at the obvious. Famine is something other people experience. Food is culture. We are Fordians. Food is a product. There are market segments aimed at appealing to each of us. Lite, light, food as medicine, fast food, organic, fresh, whole and all shades in between are designed to make us think we can make a choice but they are actually designed to increase profits.

The concept of market segmentation derives from the idea that mass production is good but choice is better. Certain types of people will prefer to buy an Apple computer over a PC. The component parts are the same, it’s the operating system, design and price tags that are different. This group of people are then offered a series of choices from desktop and laptop models. Each variation designed to increase sales. That these differentiations might benefit individual purchaser’s is a bonus for the individual but each choice is designed to benefit the sales and bottom line of Apple.

This concept is applied to the “food” system. Of all the myriad food “segments” we will continue to follow the milk market. Originally the choice was milk or no milk. Flavoured milk, skim milk, semi-skim, fortified, A2, Trim, full flavoured low fat, high fat and UHT are among the options. Choices increase, it seems, weekly yet milk sales remain stagnant as each “innovation” is copied by every other milk processor. The Fordian idea of mass production fused with the psychology of choice. This doesn’t even take account of the more “value added” processes applied to milk. Cheese, pseudo buttermilk, yoghurt and processed cheese will be discussed further in later chapters.

With the Fordian pressures of mass production and market segmentation, the definition of food has slipped over time. Our great grandparents had no trouble recognising the stuff. Fruit, vegetables, cereals, meat and herbs/spices covered the range of things considered food. They would be hard pressed to identify 90% of the products in a supermarket as such. 

Food then, as now, was the output from a natural system. Seeds became vegetables. Vegetables were cooked. Vegetables were eaten. Waste was composted and fed the soil. Meat came from poultry, swine and ruminants feeding upon surpluses from the plant production systems or on land not suitable for cultivation. Simple system. This is essentially what happens in Nature. One system produces something, a surplus becomes an input for another system. Maybe we should be modelling that?

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