There is no doubt that our diet - as a whole - has changed completely over the last few years. However, I will not get into that today. I prefer to talk to you about how much our food itself has changed. Plain, ordinary, everyday foods that do not resemble at all the ones consumed by older generations, our grandparents, even our parents! The reasons? Plenty, and these few lines cannot fit them all. However, they can become "food for thought" and a reason to…think twice about what we put on our plate, but also where it comes from - or, even better, how the food we choose to eat is produced.
Ideally, it is produced on a farm or a large field. Yes, this image is indeed more “appealing”, but unfortunately the ever-increasing rates of demand and supply have made it unprofitable and -consequently- unrealistic. What is in demand nowadays? Mass production of products that can satisfy the needs of more people - without being supplied with the necessary nutrients. You see, the uncontrollable use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers has played an important role in this, while successive crops have degraded soil quality, making soil and -consequently- the crops poorer in vitamins, minerals, and trace elements that are valuable to our body.
In short, the goal of mass production was to "fill" rather than "feed" the world. How did that happen? By increasing -among other things- the size of the foods, by reducing their production time, and by altering their composition in order to maximize the development of the useful part and to minimize the loss. Of course, if we further examine many of these foods, we will also find that their taste has been sweetened, their nutritional elements may have been enhanced or they may have acquired a juicier texture and a more attractive color.
Chicken on the first line. And specifically, on the first line of a production that is in a hurry to catch up with the ever-growing demand of people for white meat. To achieve this, it creates chickens twice the size we knew 70 years ago. How? By employing a number of breeding improvements, which lead to more robust breeds, with more meat in half the breeding time. According to a relevant study by the University of Alberta, Canada, the chicken breasts of our time are 80% larger than those of chickens in 1957. During this study, researchers grew (without hormones and drugs, and with the same diet pattern) three different species of chicken, which were raised in three different decades - namely in 1957, 1978, and 2005. The result? 56 days later, the chicken of 1957 reached a weight of only 905 g, the corresponding one of 1978 weighed 1.808 g, while the one of 2005 exceeded 4 kg! According to the head of the research, Dr. Zuidhof, the size of chickens has quadrupled compared to that of chickens in 1957. But this is due to genetic reasons. In short, the market demanded chickens to produce more meat in less time, and science - with the help of genetics - delivered.
Fruits and vegetables of the "new era". An era when shape grows larger, flesh increases, and pits shrink or…disappear. In this case as well, selective reproduction works wonders, and over time fruits and vegetables adapt to our needs, yielding fruit that is durable, juicy, and much larger than those given to us in their original form many, many years ago. Genetically modified foods are a fact, but we will not get into that today. From the time agriculture came into people’s lives (about 13.000 years ago), people have tried to improve their crops through successive crosses of different species. Traditional grafting methods of farmers have slowly begun to evolve through science and technology. The ultimate goal? To make experts end up with more durable fruits, tastier and much more impressive in terms of appearance. This led to fruits and vegetables that are reminiscent of their…ancestors only in name. A few examples?
- Corn. Today's corn bears no resemblance to the original. Through the crossbreeding of plants, scientists were able to grow it 1.000 times and make it taste much sweeter than the original.
- Peach. Tiny, not at all juicy, and with a not so good taste. Thousands of years and countless crosses of different varieties have passed for peach to become reminiscent of the fruit we eat today, which is 64 times larger than its ancestor and 27% juicier!
- Avocado. 80% of its interior was occupied by the avocado pit a few thousand years ago. In addition, its skin was particularly hard, while its taste particularly bad. Imagine that, to get the amount of flesh that an avocado of our time gives us, we would need 10 of the old ones! So, desiring and looking forward to a “richer” fruit, people tried to evolve the avocado. Did they succeed? Absolutely, we could say, since a few years ago, a well-known retailer introduced a limited batch of stoneless avocados with edible skin! This fruit came from an unpollinated blossom that grows without seed.
- Watermelon. Today's watermelons are 200 times larger than their ancestors. In fact, the weight of their ancestors did not exceed 80 g, while now, many watermelons in the market reach (and exceed) 8 kg. At this point, it is worth mentioning that a watermelon won a place in the Guinness World Records as the heaviest one ever recorded, with its weight reaching 159 kg! As for the taste? With the passage of time and -of course- with the intervention of people, the taste of watermelon evolved from bitter to the wonderful sweet taste we all know today, while we should not forget that watermelons today have much fewer seeds than those that their ancestors had. How long did it take to do all this? About 5.000 years, according to experts!
Eggs that hold secrets. It has not been many years since eggs were considered a cheap raw material. Cost-effective food, but at the same time very nutritious for our body. Things have changed since then, as -today- one can find many different types of eggs in the market, some of which are available at three times the price a "conventional" egg would have. Be careful, though! "Conventional" is no longer an egg from the farm. The egg of mass production is considered conventional, coming from hens that are born and raised in factories and -many times- are fed with food of dubious quality. There was a time when a look at the color of an egg yolk was enough to tell if it came from a properly fed hen - you see, what a hen eats ends up in the egg and then in our body. Why? Because a few years ago, a bright orange yolk meant it came from a well-fed hen and was an egg rich in nutrients. Many mass production units are now supplementing their poultry feed with dyes, in order to change the color of the yolk, which automatically ceases to reflect the true nutritional value of the egg. On the other hand, there are selective breeding units that invest in specific breeds of poultry with… pedigree - hens, that is, with a certified pedigree that lay "golden" (in terms of price) eggs with blue color and high nutritional value thanks to the quality of life and the nutrition of the poultry!
Giant cows. In 2011, researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln looked at the US cattle population, noting that although the number of animals has declined since 1974, the amount of beef produced remains stable at almost 23 billion kilos. This automatically leads us to the conclusion that the size of the cattle has increased, with the result that fewer animals can produce the same amount of meat.
One of the most characteristic examples of the mutation of specific cow species is the case of the Belgian blue cow. This breed emerged after controlled insemination for the desired reproduction of a new species of cattle with double muscle tissue which belong to the so-called "beef cattle breeds". Of course, there are many ethical issues that arise, but today we will not get into them either.
Salmon that…yields the most. Yes, it yields much more meat in less time. That was the goal of the Massachusetts-based American biotechnology company, which in 1989 introduced the salmon "AquAdvantage" to the public. It is a genetically engineered species of salmon and in particular…an evolution - or perhaps it would be better to say "magnification" - of Atlantic salmon. This intervention created not only a much larger fish, but a fish that reaches the desired size (according to market standards) in about 18 months and not in 3 years, as happens with conventional salmon.
By reading all this, we realize how much our food has changed over the years, but also how much it is going to change in the years to come. The need to know where our food comes from is more urgent than ever. How can we make the best possible choices? We should try to choose local products. We should respect the seasonality of fruits and vegetables. We should prefer products from producers that respect the rhythms of nature and the environment. Everything is up to us… AND OUR PLATE.
Poultry Science, Martin Zuidhof “Growth, efficiency, and yield of commercial broilers from 1957, 1978, and 2005”
University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Animal Science Department
Tri-State Livestock News, Article by Ken Olsen, 08.03.11
sciencedirect.com (Encyclopedia of Meat Sciences. Oxford: Elsevier, 2004)
biblio.ugent.be (S.De Smet, Double-muscled animals, Ghent University, Melle, Belgium, 28.11.2004)