There is so much hype about ‘health food’ and eating organic these days, it can make the head spin! Eat organic! Eat whole food. Don’t eat meat. Don’t eat grains. Do eat grains. And the list goes on… But really, how much attention should we be paying to the ‘health foodies and nutritionists’ who say that eating natural organic whole food is the basis of a healthy diet, of natural weight loss and the key to avoiding many preventable diseases? Is it all just a food fad or, even worse a marketing ploy to make us buy unnecessary, expensive food?
I decided to give some thought to the way the way the Prophet (SAW) the very best of mankind, ate and took a comparative look at food in the time of Rasul Allah (SAW) and the food we eat today.
How much of a difference is there? As it turns out, quite a bit!
Let’s take a practical look at the basic differences between food then and now:
Then:Food was chemical-pesticide- free.
Now: Most commercial food has been exposed to chemical pesticides in some form or another.
Then: Food was GM-free (free from inter-species genetic modification).
Now: There are several commercial genetically modified crops and products, and GM food/by-products are particularly common in processed food.
Then: Food was 100% natural with no chemical additives.
Now: Modern processed food contains colouring agents, preservatives, flavourants and synthetic nutrients, and more.
Then: Food was grown in fertile soil (rather than large scale monoculture which depletes the soil).
Now: Many foods are now grown in depleted soil, making them nutrient-poor.
Then: Natural oils/fats were commonly eaten, such as olive oil and animal fats.
Now: Vegetable oils are far more common in the modern diet, as well as man-made TRANS fats, often found in processed food.
Then: Animals were raised naturally: grass-fed/wild meat, chickens (eggs).
Now: Feedlot animals are often given hormones and treated with antibiotics. Animals are often fed a diet of corn and other unnatural products and live confined, sometimes never even seeing the light of day.
Then: Wholegrains – grains were eaten unrefined.
Now: Much of the modern diet consists of refined grains, in particular, white flour and white rice, which makes up a large percentage of daily calories for most people.
Then: Sweeteners were all natural, such as honey.
Now: Modern food is full of refined sugars (cane sugar, beet sugar and high fructose corn syrup) which make up a large portion of daily calories for most people, as well as synthetic sweeteners such as aspartame, just to name one.
Looking at the comparison, it’s clear that there are significant differences between food as it was eaten 1400 years ago and the majority of the commercial food that is available today.
Looking at each of these areas in a little more detail highlights how our food system has been compromised in recent years. There has been a move away from food from the way Allah (SWT) made it, to food that is largely produced in a lab designed to look good, taste better and last longer. This shift has had serious consequences, not only on our health but on the environment as well.
In the time of the Prophet (SAW) there were no chemical pesticides used on crops as they simply didn’t exist as we know them, so food would have been pesticide-free. In contrast, in the U.S alone, 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides are sprayed in their crops every year.
Unfortunately, most pesticides are synthetic chemicals with questionable safety records. History speaks for itself with chemicals such as DDT, once widely used, now banned because of the health risks they pose. Of the 600 or so pesticides currently used in the U.S, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified 64 pesticides that can potentially cause cancer.
In a study in 2013, almost two-thirds of the produce tested by the U.S Department of Agriculture had pesticide residue and pesticides persisted on products even when washed and in some cases, even peeled.
The Environmental Working Group found that
- 99 % of sample apples, 98% of peaches, and 97% nectarines tested positive for a minimum of 1 pesticide residue.
- Potatoes had more pesticides by weight than any other type of produce.
- Both a single grape and sweet bell pepper sample had 15 pesticides present on them.
The Environmental Working Group has compiled a list, the dirty dozen and clean fifteen, which details the fruit and vegetables with the highest and lowest pesticide residue from a study they carried out. It is a useful shopper’s guide for those who cannot afford organic food. The full list includes data on all 48 fruit and veggies they studied.
GMO = Genetically Modified Organism
‘GMOs are created in a lab, by inserting a gene from one organism into another unrelated organism, producing plants and animals that would never occur in nature. No long-term safety studies have been done on humans, but animal studies link the consumption of GMOs to an increase in allergies, kidney and liver disease, ADHD, cancer, infertility, chronic immune disorders and more.’ (www.organic consumers.org)
It’s true that farmers have always practiced traditional methods of plant ‘breeding’ such as combining particularly strong plants with others or breeding similar plants species, to create a new hybrid (for example, tangelos are a hybrid of grapefruit and tangerines). The difference between these traditional methods and GM application today, is that modern techniques allow scientists to cross biological species boundaries that could not be crossed by traditional plant breeding.
This means they can transfer traits/genes between completely unrelated species, such as from bacteria or animals into plants.
The most common commercial GM crops today are soy, corn, cotton, canola and sugar beets. It is worth noting that the FDA classifies GM food as ‘generally recognised as safe’ (GRAS).
Most modern, processed food is designed to look good, taste better and last longer. It’s filled with a chemical soup of additives which we don’t often give a second thought to.
Candies and cakes, chips and sodas and even fruit juices have colouring agents in them, almost everything contains preservatives and flavourants, and because most of the food that is produced has little nutritional value, it’s often ‘fortified’ with synthetic nutrients. Although the government has now banned many synthetic food additives, there are still a number that are used that are being linked to conditions including asthma, depression, allergies, migraines and learning disabilities in children.
Food in the time of the Prophet (SAW) would have been 100% natural, just as Allah (SWT) made it. No chemicals or additives; just plain whole food.
While it’s impossible to know what the exact nutrient density of food would have been in the time of the Prophet (SAW) we can look at a comparison a little closer to date for an idea of how nutrient contents have changed in recent years.
As it turns out, fruit and vegetables are less nutritious now than they were 50 years ago.
In a study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition in 2004, Donald Davis and a team of researchers from the University of Texas compared the agricultural data from 1950 and 1999 for 43 different fruit and vegetables and found ‘reliable declines’ in calcium, vitamin B12, vitamin C, phosphorous, iron and protein over the last 50 years.
Davis attributed this reduction in nutrients agricultural practices to farmers, focusing on factors such as size, growth rate and resistance to pests, rather than the produce’s nutrient value.
“Efforts to breed new varieties of crops that provide greater yield, pest resistance and climate adaptability have allowed crops to grow bigger and more rapidly,” reported Davis, “but their ability to manufacture or uptake nutrients has not kept pace with their rapid growth.”
The Organic Consumers Association cites several other studies with similar findings.
Natural fats were eaten in the time of the Prophet (SAW)such as olive oil, ghee and raw full-fat milk. Alhumdullilah, these were completely natural and organic, and Allah in all His Wisdom, has created our bodies so that they know what to do with natural fats. Olive oil, which has been proven time and time again to be so heart healthy, is mentioned in both the Quran and sunnah.
And a tree (olive) that springs forth from Mount Sinai, that grows oil, and (it is a) relish for the eaters. (Quran, 23:20)
In contrast, the majority of fat/oil intake in modern times is from vegetable oils, which are most popular for cooking. Excessive meat consumption can overload us with saturated animal fat and this is more of a problem if the animals are raised on a feedlot as their fat has different properties to animals that are grass-fed.
TRANS fats and partially-hydrogenated oils (margarine and shortening, amongst others) are also very common in the modern diet, especially in processed food. These hydrogenated fats are ‘unnatural’ fatty acid forms that the body doesn’t know what to do with. It’s kind of an equivalent to polystyrene for your cells.
Animals were raised naturally
Animals would have been grass-fed or naturally fed in the time of the Prophet (SAW) and pasture-raised. It is only modern times that have brought enormous feedlots and battery hens – the industries solution to the demand for mass production of animal products.
Ethical considerations aside, there are actually biological and nutritional differences between animal products from animals who lived healthy, happy lives, grazing and doing what animals should be doing, and animals who are confined in feedlots. Commercially-raised animals are generally fed unnatural GM corn diets, fattened up as quickly as possible and often loaded with antibiotics to prevent them getting sick in this unnatural environment.
Wholegrains – Grains Were Eaten Unrefined.
Refined grains have been stripped of the bran and germ layer, leaving only the endosperm, and they lose most of their key nutrients in this process. White flour and white rice are two prime examples of refined whole grains that are commonly eaten in modern times. While these two foods are no doubt yummy, it’s worth noting that refined carbohydrates are roughly equivalent to sugar on the glycemic index.
On the other hand, whole grains are grains in their original whole form. They are high in fibre and have unrefined complex carbohydrates, minerals and B vitamins. Wholegrain-rich diets have been shown to be protective against the development of chronic degenerative diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
There are many references to whole grains in the sunnah, including references to barley, wheat and millet.
Sweeteners were natural
Refined sugar causes blood sugar imbalances – sharp rises followed by steep falls, and provides empty calories without any supporting vitamins or minerals. Refined sugar is also acid-forming and flushes minerals from the body. It contributes to emotional imbalance, hyperactivity, dental caries, weakened immunity and Candida yeast overgrowth. It’s estimated that the average American consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar every day!
In the time of the Prophet (SAW) there would not have been any refined sugar as we know it today. Honey was a natural sweetener and it’s mentioned in both the Quran and the sunnah for its healing properties.
‘There comes forth from their bellies, a drink of varying colour wherein is healing for men. Verily, in this is indeed a sign for people who think.’ (Quran, 16:69)
In a nutshell, food in the time of the Prophet (SAW) was very different to the majority of food available today. 1400 years ago, there was no need to actively choose organic because ALL food was organic. It was all 100% natural. This was even true not that long ago. Only with the advent of mass commercial farming, genetic modification, pesticides, processing etc, has there been the need to create the ‘organic’ label.
So what do we make of all this and what does it mean to us? For me, it means the key to good health and food choices doesn’t lie in complexity, but in simplicity. It doesn’t lie in fad diets or the ‘low-fat food’ industry; it lies in getting back to basics and eating simple whole food the way Allah made it, the way the Prophet (SAW) ate it.
For some of us, that in itself may be a challenge because we don’t really know what to do with ‘real food’. We’ve lost the skills our great-grandmothers and generations before us had, but the good news is, these skills can be easily learned, and the transition to eating natural whole food can be both fun and exciting. And the health benefits are profound!
Even more importantly, by making the choice to eat natural whole food for the sake of pleasing Allah and taking care of the body He has blessed you with, you elevate your choices to acts of worship. Alhumdullilah.
Making positive changes is a step process and it’s always important to remember that every change counts, no matter how small.
Kate is a teacher, writer and nutrition consultant in training, and the founder of Healthy Muslimah, (www.healthymuslimah.com). She has a love of all things simple and natural and is trying to live a healthier, balanced and holistic life for the sake of Allah. She’s committed to trying to take the complexity out of healthy eating and helping sisters achieve greater health and wellness, one step at a time.
The Environmental Working Group: Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen List, http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/
The Encyclopaedia of Healthy Foods, Murray, 2012
Retrieved from: https://www.organicconsumers.org/categories/genetic-engineering