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Unveiling the Hidden Reality of Processed and Preserved Foods

By Olusoji Daomi Esq.

Is your kitchen filled with ready-to-eat food? Do you often eat instant noodles? Do you grab a protein bar when getting late for work? Has frozen food become your go-to party snack? Have cake packets made their way into school lunch boxes for your children? Are there crackers and microwave popcorns in your kitchen? I am sure there are biscuit packets too. I have news for you. You have been sold a lie. A lie that these packaged food products are safe. That when in a hurry, you can pack a ready-to-eat meal bowl instead of some homemade food. You must have seen ads claiming that there is the goodness of chapati in a bowl of cornflakes. Again, it’s a lie. Protein bars are as healthy as an Nigerian local, perhaps healthier? Not true. So why don’t we do a little fact check?

Did you know pickles are probiotic? They do just what your little bottles of probiotic drinks do. What about your packet of protein bar? Can it replace a plate of egusi or Banga or Ogbono soup? You have been made to believe it can. Protein bars have micronutrients, natural sweetness, healthy fats, high fiber and all the rest. Protein bars we think are healthy? Think again, because they’re not. Anything that is packed, processed and preserved cannot be healthy. You know who are the healthiest people in the world? People who live in the blue zone. There are five pockets around the world where people live the longest. I am talking about Okinawa in Japan, Icaria in Greece, the Ogyasar region in Sardinia, Loma, Linda in California and the Nikoia Peninsula in Costa Rica. These are the five blue zones and here people routinely live more than 100 years as opposed to the average lifespan which is 73.4. In Nigeria, For men, the average life expectancy is 58 while, for women is 61.2 years. So the people living in blue zones must be doing something right.
What do you think they eat? Yogurt cups, bought from stores, packaged oatmeal or ready to make breakfast smoothies, low fat, almond and soy meal? Well, none of the above. People living in these blue zones eat home food. They eat locally sourced fruits and vegetables. People in blue zones stick to time-honored recipes, food that has been passed on to them from their ancestors.

For us in Nigeria Moi-Moi, Edikang Ikong Soup. Pounded yam with Ogbono Soup, Asaro/Yam Porridge, Beans and Rice with Dodo, or Peppered Goat Meat. These are our traditional foods. They’re made from locally sourced ingredients and they compliment the local weather conditions. In short, our traditional food is our health food.
There is no need to consume healthy fats from packaged foods when local palm oil and locust beans already charge your home food with healthy fats. Why do you need multigrain cereals when home made Eba, Fufu, Cassava Flakes (Soaked Garri), Abacha are fiber packed? Our traditional food has medicinal qualities. You may need to know that turmeric is antioxidant and cardamom has antioxidants and cancer-fighting properties. It also prevents cavities. Cinnamon reduces cholesterol levels. Also, the risk of heart diseases. Cumin spice helps lower blood sugar levels. Coriander seeds have anti-fungal properties. All of these spices are commonly used in Nigerian cooking.

Can packaged and processed food replace them? The answer is no. And I will tell you why. Number one, the ingredients are questionable. Number two, the hygiene is questionable. And number three, the packaging itself is often harmful.

Let me explain this by using some of the most common packaged foods in our kitchen.
Let us start with the ingredients. Most packaged foods have three common ingredients.
Preservatives, excess salt and colour. And let me tell you all three are bad for you. Preservatives end up killing the good bacteria in your body. They can trigger breathing problems. Also make children hyperactive. We can heart tissues and in extreme cases cause cancer. Which food items have preservatives? Almost everything that is packed. This includes your cereals, biscuits, crackers, breads, ready-to-eat meals, cheese, meat, sauces, soups, everything. Ask yourself a question. What is the shelf life of a homemade batch of cookies? Two to three weeks maximum, if kept outside the fridge.
Then how is it that your biscuit packets stays intact for months, even years? Because it comes with chemicals. Chemicals that extend their shelf life but reduce yours. Same with these heat and eat meals. A lot of us resort to them these days and understandably so our lives are busy. There is not enough time to cook three fresh meals a day so microwave meals have become common. They have replaced additional meals for some people at least.

In Nigeria, the Nigerian Frozen Food eCommerce market is predicted to reach US$7.7 million by 2024 and accounts for 9.3% of the Food eCommerce market in Nigeria. You know what is amusing? A lot of these ready-to-eat packets can be kept in the room temperature for months. Imagine keeping a homemade moi-moi or Banga soup outside the fridge for months. What do you think could happen? Now imagine the amount of preservatives that go into making these packaged meals. Same with packaged bread, packaged cakes and everything else that is industrially packed. Salt too is a preservative.

Most of the packed items including chips, noodles and fries are loaded with salt. It extends their shelf life, it enhances their taste but at what cost? Salt has sodium and consuming too much sodium increases your blood pressure. The risk of stomach cancer, heart diseases and premature death. I am guessing for a lot of you Noodle foods, cheese and bread have replaced your traditional breakfast. But is the habits sustainable? Should you continue eating packaged food even after knowing its downside? Is it worth risking your health?

So what do you do? Cook three meals a day while also juggling work and life? That is far from what I am suggesting. The point of this article is to tell you that you should reduce the intake of packaged and processed food. Realize how some of the most common items in your kitchen can be harmful for you.

Those colourful cereals that you eat every morning, they are food colour and food colour has acrylamide. It is a chemical that is not good for your health, it causes cancer. You know what else has food colour? Packaged bread, cakes and biscuits. How do you think some of those biscuits are unnaturally dark or orange or pink? How is it that they come with colourful creams? Your homemade snack looks dull in comparison but it’s safer. How many of you regularly munch on microwave popcorns? Do you know the popcorn bags align with PFC or per-floorinated compound?

What these compounds do is prevent oil from seeping through the popcorn bag, which is good. But when heated, these compounds break down into chemicals and these chemicals may cause cancer. You see, we are told very little about this other side of packaged food because they save time, because they are tasty, because they come to a rescue. We conveniently assume that they are also safe.

A freshly cooked moi-moi, we say may be a better snack, followed by a workout of course, than munching on microwave popcorns without any idea what is going into your body. It is better to eat that locally cooked rice and beans than preservative filled cereals for breakfast. We know very little about the ingredients that go into making packaged food and I am talking about the real ingredients, not the ones that are listed on the packet. We know very little about the hygiene situation of the place where these food items are made and processed. Earlier this month, Salmanela was found in the world’s biggest chocolate factory. The factory was producing Swiss chocolates, some of the finest Swiss chocolates.

Long story short, it is time to rethink what we take for granted. It is time to reconsider the food in our kitchen. I know that it is not possible to throw out every packaged, preserved or processed food item from your kitchen, but you can always limit their consumption. So if you are looking to stay healthy, if you are looking to stay fit, if your goal is to take care of your body, then do what people in blue zones do. Maximize the intake of homemade food.

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