a scale made of processed foods

The Impact of Processed Foods on Society

In the 1950s a proverbial stone was cast into the waters of society that would send ripples of both liberation and public health crisis. The ‘stone’ represents the widespread adoption of processed and packaged foods or 'convenience foods'. The convenience of foods seemed advantageous, and they certainly did change lives. However, there is always an exchange and with the good comes consequences.

Processed food's positive impact on society

Interestingly, a pillar of woman’s liberation in the United States was convenience foods. Processed foods are older than the 1950s, however, it was the combination of new convenience technologies - "the electric kitchen" - that made the difference.1 Post-war consumerism in the 1950s and the advancements in electric appliances, turned “convenience meals” into a social status. Meals became quick to prepare with microwaves and quick to clean up with dishwashers; convenience was the commodity.

The convenience meals meant something significant for the women of the 1950s - more free time. With more free time, women were able to join clubs, pick up new interests, and form more social connections. This would eventually result in a massive movement for woman’s rights and personal freedoms. While this was a massive positive that was perpetuated by processed foods, they also had a massive consequence on global health.

The other side of the processed foods

Since the 1950s, food science has propagated an abundance of processed foods, with long shelf lives, making convenience foods widespread and common across the country. In fact, by 2016, about 60% of the calories consumed in the United States came from processed foods.2 The common conundrum with processed foods is increasing preservability while maintaining palatability; the solution has been to add sugars and salt to the food to make it more palatable for the consumer. This meant that most of the processed foods had added sugars and lower fiber content from processing, increasing the caloric intake but reducing the crucial nutrient that helps with digesting the added sugars.

High calorie-low fiber is both the recipe for processed foods and preventable chronic illness. A study published in 2019 by JAMA Internal Medicine, found that eating 11% more processed foods, increased the risk of diabetes by 15%.3 As previously noted, since the 1950s the world and the United States in particular, consumes more processed foods than ever. Resulting in a highly predictable outcome; a rise in diabetes.

The impact of processed food on diabetes

Although ironic to write during a global pandemic, infectious diseases have been managed incredibly well by modern epidemiology and pharmaceutical research. Although, a new epidemic poses a significant health risk to contemporary society; diabetes and other metabolic diseases formed by lifestyle.4 Convenience foods have lead to two serious lifestyle changes: high-caloric intake with high sugar content and sedentary behavior from leisure activities.

These changes have resulted in a staggering change in public health priority. Since 1958, the amount of the population with diagnosed diabetes has risen from 1.6 million to 23.4 million in the United States.5 This means that less than 1% of the population had diabetes at the start of the boom of the processed food, compared to over 7% of the population today. A rise that has been attributed to the convenience of highly processed foods and the sedentary lifestyles of modern America.

Weighing the positive and negative

The creation of convenience foods has had two significant impacts on society. One very positive, another very concerning. The positive; convenient foods liberated time for housewives of the 1950s, leading to a societal shift and reformation of gender roles. On the flip side, convenience foods have also lead to an unprecedented rise in diabetes due to the lifestyle changes and content of the foods. As a result, modern recommendations for the prevention and management of diabetes are often avoiding processed foods and adopting a more active lifestyle.

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