Today we think of processed foods as a relatively recent innovation with rather negative connotations, think chicken nuggets, Cheetos and diet sodas. However, the reality is that humans have been processing foods long before we settled into agricultural societies.
The first obvious innovation was the use of fire to cook. It takes less work and provides more calories to eat cooked food such as meat and root vegetables. Some authors have suggested that the use of fire to prepare food was integral to human development, allowing for enlarged brains, and resulting in the more gracile facial characteristics of smaller jaws and teeth.
The timeline for the adoption of the use of fire to prepare foods ranges from suggestions that H. erectus used fire 1.8 million years ago. Others suggest that the real control of fire and frequent use of fire in food preparation dates roughly to the time of a later relative H. neaderthalensis, about 400,000 years ago. Others say it is as recent as 20,000 years ago. Whichever timeline you choose, processing food with fire began long before what we describe as civilization, the transition from isolated hunter-gatherer groups to larger agrarian societies.
Agriculture was the great transition to move towards larger social groups, but there is evidence that making bread preceded the active cultivation of grain crops. Wild grains are nutritious but difficult to consume without processing. By grinding grains to produce a flour, and then baking that into bread provided a relatively calorie-dense, environmentally stable and easily transportable food. As we became more dependent on bread, cultivation became necessary and drove the transition towards agriculture.
The shift to agriculture produced new demands. Crops are seasonal but our diets are daily, hence the need for storage at least on an annual cycle. The next technical advance was quite likely the invention of beer. Traces of a residue from beer on pottery have been found dating back to over 7,000 years ago.
During the Middle Ages, much of Europe was probably mildly drunk – men, women, and children alike. Hygiene not being the strong suit at the time, water sources were invariably polluted with human wastes. To brew beer however required boiling the wort, a mixture of malted barley and water. This produced a potable beverage with considerable nutrition to boot. Later hops were found to improve the flavor and increase the storage life, making beer all the more valuable.
Europe, especially northern Europe saw the evolution of lactose tolerance in adults. Milk is an extremely nutritious source of protein and fat and therefore a complement to bread and beer. But milk doesn’t store well. Cheese on the other hand has a considerable shelf life, months to years.
Cheese was first made by storing mike in a natural container, a stomach removed from a ruminant. A substance known as rennet present in the lining of the stomach caused the milk to clabber. Add various bacteria to produce lactic acid for increased digestibility and you have a flavorful, stable, fat and protein laden foodstuff.
A diet of “processed food” – Cheese Whiz on a cracker washed down with a beer – is a truly ancient meal. With the macronutrients protein, fat and carbohydrate, and the micronutrients both fat and water-soluble vitamins, it’s all there. Bon appetit.