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Author Nicola Temple.

Best Before: The Evolution and Future of Processed Food

By Nicola Temple, Bloomsbury Sigma, 272 pages

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For many of us, the term “processed food” conjures up images of the kinds of things you’re likely to find on the shelf at your local 7-Eleven: sad microwaved burritos, novelty-sized “extreme” energy drinks and cream-filled cakes with a seemingly infinite shelf life. Foods, in other words, whose ingredient lists are as impenetrable as a chemistry formula or the iTunes Terms of Service Agreement.

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The problem with this association, Nicola Temple argues in her smart, informative book Best Before: The Evolution and Future of Processed Food, is that nearly everything we eat – even the most seemingly natural and wholesome foods in our kitchens – has been processed in one way or another. If it’s been cut, ground, mixed, heated, cooled, dried, fermented or packaged in any way, Temple points out, it’s technically a processed food.

Best Before, then, is a work of popular science that seeks to upend many of our assumptions about processed food. It does this by providing detailed and sometimes highly technical explorations of the ways in which food processing technologies have evolved over time and, in the process, have often changed the course of human history (think refrigeration). Temple’s goal is to demystify the science of food processing so that readers might become “discerning consumers who can identify when innovative ideas might benefit society and our planet, and when they purely benefit company profits.”

At its best, Temple’s book provides a wide-ranging and entertaining tour through the history and science of some of the most important food processing methods developed by humans since we first started cooking with fire over a million years ago.

The chapter on cheese, for instance, takes us from our ancestors accidentally discovering how to make cheese by storing milk in an animal skin sack nearly 10,000 years ago all the way up to the invention of Kraft Singles and “pizza cheese” – a product that, despite its name, isn’t actually cheese at all. The chapter on bread similarly takes us back to when the first evidence of cereals being processed and baked shows up in the archeological record, more than 20,000 years ago, up through the rise of the quasi-edible gluten-free breads that now seem to take up so much grocery store real estate.

More than just historical narrative and anecdote, though, each chapter attempts to tackle a number of what Temple sees as pressing contemporary questions. The bread chapter, for instance, provides a deft and nuanced examination of whether there really is a rise in gluten allergies because of modern food processing methods by walking the reader through the science of celiac disease and gluten digestion. Similarly, Temple’s analysis of whether the next frontier in food technology – namely, nanotech food additives (particles so tiny that their high surface-area-to-volume ratio makes them more reactive even in small quantities) – is actually safe for humans provides an impressively detailed and even-handed account that doesn’t shy away from decidedly technical discussions.

To Temple’s credit, the answers to these kinds of questions are ambiguous and uncertain because they reflect the reality of modern scientific research: there are no easy answers, and, like scientists themselves, Temple makes a strong case that consumers need to become better at embracing uncertainty and complexity when assessing the relative risk of our food choices.

The problem for the reader is that, even after 272 pages, Best Before feels like it opens up as many questions as it answers. To her credit, Temple acknowledges a number of areas where her book is lacking. At one point she even recommends that you read Michael Moss’s Salt Sugar Fat if you want to understand the ways in which the food industry uses technology to hook consumers on unhealthy processed foods. But even in the areas that Temple does cover, it’s clear that the average reader will likely never be educated enough to get the complete story without doing a lot of additional research. In her discussion of food additives, after all, Temple admits that “discerning the good and bad additives on any ingredient list… requires nothing short of a chemistry degree.”

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These aren’t huge problems in themselves. After all, no book examining such a massive topic could ever hope to be truly exhaustive. What is problematic, though, is when the reality of this complexity runs up against Temple’s oft repeated main argument that knowledgeable consumers can help “create the food future we envision through our purchasing decisions.”

The fact that the very food processing technologies examined by Temple have helped to create an enormously complex global food system that sees even the most perishable items travelling thousands of kilometres from field to fork makes this ideal of the consumer capable of changing the world through their purchasing habits seem like a dubious proposition. Most consumers have little way of knowing how, where, and under what conditions their food was produced. And while some consumers have attempted to address this gap by paying a huge premium for organic, local or fair-trade-certified foods, this clearly isn’t the solution.

Temple’s book, then, may be an informative and enjoyable read, overall, but her self-described “pragmatic” prescription for our collective food future unfortunately comes across as a bit half-baked.

Ian Mosby is a historian of food, health and colonialism and the author of Food Will Win the War: The Politics, Culture and Science of Food on Canada’s Home Front.