Processed to death

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

The World Health Organization simply affirmed, with years of research to back up its findings, what many have suspected all along: that processed meat can cause cancer.

Too many of my colleagues have died relatively young, from 35 to their late 50s, due to health problems. I’ve always thought that diet – particularly the processed foods of modern life – was partly to blame, apart from smoking and drinking.

Dog lovers should be among the first to suspect this. We learn early not to feed our dogs anything with nitrites or nitrates or similar preservatives. Sausages, cured hams and cold cuts can wreak havoc on canine skin, and the costly treatment can take months. If hotdogs can do that to dogs, think of what the preservatives can do to your body.

The typical consumer of the 21st century has traded food quality for convenience – and is paying the price for it in terms of health.

Food consumption patterns fueled the growth of meat processing. As long as the stuff is affordable and tasty, available in supermarkets in attractive packaging, doesn’t require fussy preparation and can last forever in the refrigerator, processed food sells.

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The same consumption patterns govern other food items, including those that are best consumed within a few days such as breads, cakes and milk. This is how we ended up with melamine-laced milk. I miss the days when fresh carabao milk was delivered in bottles with bunched up banana leaf stoppers to our doorstep in Manila. We boiled the milk just to make sure it was not contaminated, and then scooped up and ate the film that formed on the surface. The exquisite taste is unparalleled.

Some large bakeshops prepare cakes for the Christmas holidays weeks in advance – and I’m not talking about the liquor-soaked fruit and rum cakes, but regular chiffon and butter confections. That kind of shelf life for regular cakes can be possible only with the aid of chemicals, described in packaging as “conditioners” and “softeners” or, more honestly, as preservatives.

Artisan bakers trace the start of chemical-laden baked products to the development of instant yeast and similar modern leavening agents to create air bubbles that make baked goods rise. They replaced natural leaveners but shortened natural shelf life, necessitating the addition of those chemical conditioners and softeners.

I develop natural leaven in my kitchen for my home-baked bread so I can understand the convenience of anything instant, especially for mass production. Developing a leavener from substances occurring naturally in the air is tedious and can take a week or more, but the result is more powerful than any instant yeast. And the final bread product, which needs no chemical preservatives or conditioners, can last up to five days with no change in the uniquely wonderful flavor and texture at tropical room temperature.

But today’s typical consumer wants bread with a three-week use-by date, with snow-white crumb (which means the flour is bleached with chemicals and stripped of many nutritious minerals) and which stays soft forever (that’s where the softener comes in).

No one likes going to the supermarket daily just to buy fresh bread or fresh meat, especially if the shopping mall charges parking fee so you can buy from their establishments. The rich are truly not like you and me; their greed grows exponentially with their income. Will we ever see the political will to abolish these parking fees?

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I also process meat so I know what chemicals go into them, and I know they can be nasty. My chemical-free “fresh” sausages, native longganiza and corned beef use only salt (washed off thoroughly later) and natural ferments as preservatives. The only “bad” ingredient I can’t omit, try as I might, is the fat (minimum one-fourth of total sausage weight), unless I want to bite into dry sausage that shrivels like a mummy when cooked. Those are the times when I tell myself that we only live once, and what’s a little cholesterol between friends?

Such “fresh” sausages and corned beef are popular in Europe, but they can cost 20 times more than the red sausages popular in our country. You can buy the red sausages for P5 per link in wet markets. Many Filipinos seem leery of sausages that aren’t red. Pinoys also like red tocino swimming in sugar, red food color and pink salt or Prague powder (sodium nitrate) – although there are now nitrate/nitrite-free, food-color-free versions available.

Considering the cost of meat, you can’t expect a lot of meat in a sausage retailed at P5 per piece. In this case, the meat industry has the right to protest. The sausage is mainly soy-based textured vegetable protein or TVP with meat flavoring and other spices and flavor enhancers – the same stuff in the buy-one-take-one P20 burger.

But food processors have mastered the art of simulating meat and what Pinoys think sausages and burgers should taste like, so no one even bothers to find out what’s in their hotdog or meat patty.

As for the stuff that uses real meat, the processed products can taste so good people don’t want to lose their appetite by checking out the ingredients. How can we give up honey-cured bacon?

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On this day for the dead, we wonder if better diet could have meant longer lives for our loved ones and friends. Only last month we bid goodbye to our chief proofreader Nestor Etolle. He died of a heart attack at 61.

In September last year we lost our associate editor, Antonio Paño. He succumbed to colon cancer at 53. Tony was a heavy smoker and liked drinking soda on an empty stomach.

Nearly three-fourths of my colleagues who covered the Manila police are dead. When I was covering Cory Aquino’s presidency, one of the reporters died of colon cancer. The woman was just 35; she told me the only reason she could think of for her illness was her overuse of monosodium glutamate.

Last May we lost our chief of photographers, Val Rodriguez, to complications from a heart attack. I was told he had quit smoking months ago but still loved chicharon. He was 67.

The WHO warning comes too late for me to give up being a carnivore. Maybe it’s in the culture; I grew up enjoying adobo, chicharon, crispy pata and of course lechon. And I confess I still buy all types of cold cuts and sausages.

For many it’s comfort food: a juicy hotdog, hot off the grill, oozing with flavorful fat as you bite into its taut casing and firm meat. Yum! What’s a little carcinogen between friends?


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