How has science changed the way we eat our food?
From the first time man’s ancestors rubbed two sticks together to produce a spark, our thirst for knowledge has impacted on everything around us. The way people eat today is no different and like most other aspects of scientific and technological advancement, the impact on what we eat has had both positive and negative effects.
Man’s quest for advancement has had obviously had huge benefits on the way we eat. Scientific developments have allowed us to grow crops and raise livestock in unfavourable conditions, they have helped protect those crops and animals while they are growing and, just as importantly, helped to store them for long periods once they are harvested or slaughtered. This is all very necessary with a world population that is due to break through the seven billion mark at some point during 2011.
Scientific research has also provided invaluable information on nutrition. We now have vast numbers of papers discussing the impact salt, sugar, fats, carbohydrates and proteins have on our bodies. There can be little doubt that along with good health care, improved nutrition is one of the key factor behind increased life span in the developed world.
On the downside, however, so much of the information we are presented with is both confusing and conflicting. There seems to be a daily about face on many issues and many of the tools that we were promised were going to change the way we live for the better, such as the microwave, are now being dismissed in favour of even newer technology.
However, even if all of this information can be bewildering at best, there is little doubt that science has and continues to have a huge effect. Below are my choices for the top five scientific discoveries that have impacted on how we eat.
Before refrigeration, people had to use other methods of preserving their food, particularly vital proteins like meat or fish. Primary amongst these was the use of salt, which inhibits the growth of bacteria found within food and allowed it to be kept for longer periods.
The art of salting actually has its origins in the embalming process used by ancient Egyptians and so important did the use of salt become that during the Roman period and in the Middle Ages it was amongst the most expensive commodities on earth.
Salting is still, of course, commonly used in the production of breakfast staples like bacon.
How could I possibly leave out the discovery of distillation? The roots of distilling go back to the time of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians.
Now, there are few cultures that do not have their own indigenous spirit made from local resources.
Although there is a misconception of alcohol being produced in the Arabic world for medicine and scents, the word “Al-Khul” actually meant “fine” or “pure” powder used for darkening eyelids.
It would be hard to now imagine life without access to a fridge or freezer. However, up until the beginning of the 19th Century that would have been the reality for most people.
Ice was first shipped commercially from New York in 1799 and a hundred or so years later there were over 2000 ice merchants in the US alone with iceboxes common in all but the poorest households.
While its use to preserve food was its main benefit, the availability of quality ice also led to the creation of chilled mixed drinks, the precursor of our modern cocktail.
Genetically modified food
While the controversy over genetically modified foods seems to be a fairly recent occurrence, it may surprise some people to know that crops grown with an alteration or deletion made to their genetic make up have been on the market for nearly thirty years.
The demand for a right to choose if we eat GM crops or not is one that must now be balanced with the increasing demand for food for the world’s growing population.
If you doubt the impact of television on what we eat and how we eat it, just ask yourself how many meals you eat at the dining table and how many while glued to the goggle box.
While you are at it, ask yourself how many of those hours watching television are spent watching cookery shows. I am guessing, if you are a regular reader of this site that the answer will be the majority.
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