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Revolutionising the food system: How the current system affects our health and makes us sick

Hi there! Welcome to the first post in our six-part series on “Revolutionising the food system”. As part of Tend’s mission to reconnect with our food, we hope these articles provide you with insight and understanding of the implications of our current food system. In parts 1, 2, 3 and 4, we’ll be discussing the health, climate, ecological and ethical impacts. In part 5, we’ll share what we believe a sustainable food system looks like, before talking about the benefits of that system in part 6. Together, we can revolutionise how we feed ourselves and our planet.

 

Living a long, fulfilling life requires maintaining good health, but the current food system makes us sick. As Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, ‘The first wealth is health’ yet the corporations that lead our food system prioritise profit over consumer health, and our diets have changed accordingly. This is causing a rise in chronic diseases, reduction in food nutrient quality, ingestion of potentially deadly chemicals, and an imbalance in our gut microbiome with associated physiological and mental impacts. We’ve become so disconnected with what we’re eating, and it’s killing us.

Health Concern 1: High salt, high fat and sugary processed foods contribute to a variety of chronic diseases

Industrialised mass-production of addictive, cheap foods made for long shelf-lives contribute to chronic diseases. These foods lack the vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients essential for optimum health, while their high levels of salt, fat, sugar, and chemicals stimulate our brains and encourage us to crave more. One significant consequence of excessive empty calorie consumption is a rise in obesity. In 2018, 67% of adult males and 60% of adult females in the UK were obese [i]. Obesity can induce a whole host of other chronic diseases [ii]. Beyond obesity, processed food has widespread impacts on our health including:

  • Raised blood pressure and an increased risk of heart failure, stroke, stomach cancer, osteoporosis, and kidney disease as a result of excessive salt consumption [iii]

  • Increased blood cholesterol levels, potentially leading to stroke and heart disease, due to high levels of saturated fat in processed foods [iv]

  • The overconsumption of sugar associated with fat accumulation, inflammation, high levels of blood pressure, and insulin resistance leading to type II diabetes [v]

 

Health Concern 2: We’re facing a decline in nutritional intake

Although most countries across the world have experienced increased food intake, this does not imply increased nutritional intake. Malnutrition still prevails due to the following features of the current food system:

  1. The presence of high-calorie foods with low nutritional value crowds out fruit and vegetable consumption. Ultra-processed foods contain not only additional salt, sweeteners and fat but also artificial colours, flavours and preservatives to increase consumer cravings [vi]. As people drift towards these addictive foods, fruit and vegetable consumption has declined. In the UK, only 29% of adults eat the recommended daily nutritional intake of 5-portions of fruit and vegetable [vii]. We’re overfed and undernourished; this is why it’s not uncommon for obesity and malnutrition to co-exist.

  2. Damaged soils result in poor micronutrient uptake by crops. Between 1940-2002, mineral contents, fruits, vegetables, milk and meat, have declined by up to 70% [viii]. As food demand has grown and big chain supermarkets drove down prices, farmers had no choice but to increase yield rapidly, whatever it’s long term consequences. The standard way to achieve this was by creating a blank canvas of land. This process involved intensive processes such as tilling the soil to remove weeds, using pesticides to remove pathogens, before making up for this destruction by applying fertilisers to encourage plant growth. However, the destruction of organic soil makes it harder to replenish micronutrients in the ground. Soil is a complex ecosystem that works in harmony. Micro-organisms in the soil provide plants with nutrients (which then are fed to us when we eat), while worms and other small insects act as pest managers and create air spaces in the soil, enabling the roots to grow as well as helping the soil to retain water and hydrate the plants. When this process is destroyed and artificial replacements such as fertiliser used to compensate, crops miss out on the benefits of these natural processes and are less nutritious as a result.

  3. The extended supply chain of the centralised food system forces harvesting to occur at sub-optimal times. It takes several days to transport our food from farms to large supermarket chains, after which it may sit on the store shelves and in our homes for even longer. To compensate and enable food to arrive in a better state, many crops are picked before peak ripeness and the peak nutrient density that comes with it. The already sub-optimal nutrient content continues to breakdown on the long journey, further depleting the level of nutrients by the time we purchase them.

  4. The focus on mass-production has led to a decline in the diversity of our diets. The rise in global trade means we have access to foods grown across the world. Rather than eat a varied diet of local, seasonal produce and heritage varieties, we import our favourite items year-round, following the seasons to other countries. While this may feel like we have a varied, global diet, much of these foods originate from the same staple plants. The consequence of this is evident in the decline of heritage grain (ancient grain varieties that haven’t been altered or hybridised) and niche yet delicious fruits and vegetables. The UN FAO has reported that globally, food diversity has declined by up to 75% in the last 100 years [ix]. A reduction in the variety of our diets means we don’t get the diverse levels of macronutrients we need.

  5. We have become used to eating all types of fruits and vegetables throughout the year, but crops grown out of season have low nutritional value because they can’t follow the natural processes of growth and ripening. Our food system tries to override this by using ripening agents and chemicals, but this severely impacts the nutritional quality and taste of the food [x]. For example, the vitamin C content of broccoli is much higher during its natural peak season in Autumn, compared to Spring [xi]. No artificial process can override nature’s seasonal food cycle, and this also explains why in-season foods taste so much better.

 

Health Concern 3: Pesticide and antibiotic usage have detrimental impacts on our health

The potential health damage from pesticides depends on exposure and dosage, but since these are hard to measure accurately, it’s better to exercise caution. For example, direct exposure of pesticides to farmers, as well as the communities living near them, may lead to developmental delays, IQ reduction and some neurological problems [xii]. As for consumers, while pesticide residue on supermarket produce is deemed safe, we should always exercise caution because, after all, they are toxic. Over time, ingested pesticides build up in our bodies. Health experts have already cautioned about its potential damage, especially to infants and new-borns [xiii]. While the UK has a better track record for pesticide use than many countries across the world, we believe it’s better to be safe than sorry.

The widespread use of antibiotics in factory-farmed livestock production has contributed to antibiotic resistance and the rise of superbugs. To prevent disease proliferation in the cramped, confined factories, animals receive antibiotics throughout their lives, not just when they are ill. In 2016, the UN concluded that the overuse of antibiotics was driving an increase in ‘superbugs’ (antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria). We see more infections that used to be treatable by antibiotics but now cause severe diseases or deaths in people. In England alone there are 165 antibiotic resistant infections a day [xiv].

On the bright side, livestock grown in a regenerative way, where they have a varied diet of natural vegetation and the space to roam, have less need for antibiotics. Like when we have a varied diet, their diverse diet means they have a broad range of micronutrients to prevent disease and only require antibiotics when they fall ill. When an animal does get sick, the space they have to roam means they are unlikely to spread the disease to the other animals and so they don’t require antibiotics as well.

 

Health concern 4: The lack of diversity in our diet causes an imbalance in our gut microbiome, which influences our immune system and mental health

The current food system, which typically leads to a diet with low diversity and fibre content, impacts our gut microbiomes and the systems it interacts with. Our gut contains a community made of up trillions of bacteria called a microbiome [xv]. Maintaining a healthy microbiome through a diverse, high-fibre diet is crucial to our health since these bacteria interact with our immune system and our central nervous system.

The gut microbiome impacts our health through its interaction with the immune system. The immune system in our body has co-evolved with the gut bacteria by regulating each other. It’s why 70-80% of our immune cells exist in the gut. A diverse gut microbiome will support immune cell production. A well-functioning immune system, in turn, enables the gut bacteria to remain stable.

However, when we’re not eating healthy, diverse foods, our gut bacteria can’t support our immune system effectively. When this happens, our immune cells can’t provide the necessary defence mechanisms for our body should we encounter a disease. Furthermore, some of the chemical produced by our gut bacteria are essential for maintaining the digestive system barrier which regulates what goes in and out of our body [xvi]. A compromised barrier leads to pathogens and harmful microbial products entering our bodies – commonly known as a ‘leaky gut’ xvi – and can lead to disease.

Our gut microbiome communicates with our nervous system through the gut-brain axis, affecting mood and brain function [xvii]. Recent studies provide increasing evidence on how our gut bacteria composition may impact psychiatric conditions such as anxiety and depression [xviii]. In the UK, 1 out of 5 women and 1 out of 8 men have mental health problems [xix]. Maintaining a healthy microbiome could help reduce these symptoms. For example, one way the gut bacteria regulate our moods is by producing chemicals that influence serotonin (the happy hormone) production [xx]. The way we manage our gut microbiome through our diets can either elevate or plummet our mood/mental health – have you ever noticed how you feel happier when you have a balanced, healthy diet?

 

The Tend Way

At Tend we’re striving to create a better food system. One that’s healthy, sustainable and ethical. The foods we eat have the potential to either steer us towards disease or enable us to thrive. We’re focused on bringing you fresh, wholesome foods that benefit your health so you can live your best life.

We work together with sustainable small-scale farmers to provide you with a diverse abundance of delicious, seasonal produce. We deliver healthy, unprocessed foods to your door within 36 hours of harvest, so it’s as fresh as you can get and packed full of nutrients. Our farmers grow their produce in healthy soils using organic methods and working in harmony with nature’s cycles. You won’t have to worry about harmful chemicals entering your body. With Tend you know exactly where your food comes from and how it has been grown.

We’re sure that once you start embracing eating in a way that celebrates natural food production, it’ll reflect in your health and wellbeing. Why not invest in your health and improve the quality of your life with Tend?


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