I am a very food safety-conscious person. Since I know how misleading eat-by and other date labels are, I rely on my senses to check whether food is still safe to consume, and I scrutinize very closely before eating. So, when I go to weekend-long ultimate frisbee tournaments, I make sure I only have non-perishable foods in my bag, as it will be sitting outside in the sun for hours on end. Nuts, energy bars, breads, peanut butter, and pretzels are my favorites. Last weekend, though, a guy on our team brought lunch provisions for everyone: loaves of bread, two tortillas espanolas (potato frittatas), a bag of tomatoes, and several packages of sliced cheeses and meats. My initial reaction was no, I’m not going to eat meat, cheese, or egg-product that has been sweltering in a bag on the beach in 25ºC heat for four hours. Then I reconsidered: Well, chorizo and salami are often kept at room temperature anyway, and smelling the cheese and tortilla will immediately prove whether they’re still good. I allowed myself to have two sandwiches (not touching the tomatoes because they weren’t washed) and found that they tasted completely fine and gave me no trouble. The story is far from exciting, but it was a really important moment for me to realize the benefits of processed food.
Yes, processed food. The phrase has a pretty negative connotation due to all of the health concerns associated with artificial coloring, chemical additives, high sugar and fat content, lack of freshness, etc. It brings to mind images of potato chips, Twinkies, and frozen microwave meals. I am all about promoting fresh and local products and generally avoiding junk food, but, in the interest of preventing food waste, it is important to recognize the values of food preservation. After all, these methods were developed so that people could keep and use food longer before it goes bad.
Keep in mind that preserving doesn’t have to mean industrial/chemical processing. Some of the oldest and most basic techniques for preserving meat, for instance, are still used because of the distinct flavors they create. Prosciutto and corned beef are examples of products that have been rubbed with salt or submerged in salty brine (the latter method usually means it should then be cooked to neutralize the saltiness) because salt dehydrates the bacteria that cause meat to spoil. Lots of fish and deli meats like pastrami also undergo air-drying or wood-smoking, which, as stated by The Economist, involves “carcinogens, which inhibit microbial growth; phenolics, which retard fat oxidation; and an array of sugars, acids and particulates that colour and flavour the meat.” Obviously, those carcinogens aren’t healthy for humans either, which is part of the reason to limit consumption of smoked and cured meat.
Another reason for the persistence of these techniques is that the simplicity of the meat curing process subjects it to a lot of environmental factors that can influence its taste, producing noticeable differences in flavor based on origin. Hence, one distinction between seemingly similar products like prosciutto and jamon serrano. Since humans have always been concerned with making their food last while retaining taste, examples of the history of preserving meat come from all over the world. Incans probably salted and dried slices of meat and referred to it as charqui, the namesake of jerky; European settlers brought stores of salt pork that could last up to two years on their ships; and China’s salted, fermented, and dried anfu ham dates back to the Qin Dynasty.
Alright, my research on meat preservation led me on a bit of a tangent, but back to my original point: processing isn’t a needless evil of the modern food system. It makes sense to manufacture perishables in such a way that they will keep over long-ish periods of time, especially now that the world is producing more food than it knows what to do with. In addition to preventing waste, many preservation techniques are designed to protect human health, as discussed in my previous article about pasteurization. Of course I saw the World Health Organization’s report linking colon cancer to processed meat, so, once again, the key is moderation. Appreciate the fact that you can eat a ham and cheese sandwich that has been in your bag all day (make sure you sniff it first), but don’t make bacon a staple of your diet.
A belated happy Thanksgiving,