Why We’re Not Smart Enough to Tat Unnatural Food…Yet

We humans are pretty clever when it comes to outsmarting nature. We’ve conquered cold climates unsuited to our nearly hairless bodies. We bring people back from the dead with modern medicine. We travel in cars, planes and spaceships much faster than our bodies could take us on our own.

But when it comes to food, nature is outsmarting us.

We’ve adapted what we eat to suit our lifestyles – quick food, cheap food, shelf-stable food. But it’s not working, and it’s one of the reasons our life expectancy may decrease, or already be decreasing.

Box of Kraft Dinner "Smart"

Humans are omnivores. We can survive on a mind-boggling variety of diets: meat and milk, fruit and nuts, insects, fish, low-carb, high-carb…but to survive (and thrive), what we need most of all is FOOD. When you eat just FOOD, you don’t have to count fat grams or look for code words like “reduced sugar” on labels. You do like our ancestors did and just EAT.

The problem is what we’re eating nowadays is often not food.

Check your cheese package; I’ll bet “modified milk ingredients” is the first ingredient on the label. What about your bread? It likely starts with white flour, which is not only stripped of its naturally occurring bran and germ (which are both edible), but also mechanically bleached and fortified with synthetic versions of vitamins lost during processing.

What’s worse is we don’t really know the effect of non-food ingredients on our bodies…or in some cases, we’re finding out. At best, preservatives and fillers are benign. At worse, they could be blocking signals from our stomachs to our brains; leading to negative effects (either acute ones, like hyperactive behaviour or not feeling full, or a long-term one, like cancer). We put blind trust in food companies to serve us food that’s safe. And to the end that it’s not teeming with microbes that cause food poisoning, it is safe, at least in the short term. But what happens when you eat those preserving ingredients every day of your life?

When I was in university, one of my profs giggled gleefully as he described the possibility of getting all the nutrients you need to survive in a pill. It was 2004 and science had deconstructed food – we knew about the macronutrients, (protein, carbohydrates, and fats) vitamins, and even health-enhancers like antioxidants. But had we reached Jetson status?


We had not, and we still haven’t. We were (and still are) emerging from the low-fat craze, having realized that cutting fat from the diet meant a low supply of essential omega-3’s. We also didn’t realize that eating a low-fat diet meant fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K aren’t well absorbed.

Don’t get me wrong – our scientific discoveries this far are nothing short of amazing. Life expectancies leapt up over the course of the last 100 years, showing us that preservatives and additives (and even willful swindling) are no match for public health, hygiene and medicine. We’ve come far enough to know how to nourish babies without mother’s milk and to keep comatose patients alive with a tube-fed nutritional slurry. But when it comes to the long-term, I don’t believe we can trust our bodies to science just yet. Survive? Absolutely. Thrive? We’re still learning. We’re not the Jetsons yet.

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