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The deadly secret behind processed food: A new emergence in Ethiopia

With national borders melting and the world becoming one global village, cultural diffusion is happening at an alarming rate. With powerful tools like the Hollywood at its disposal, the western culture has disseminated into the rest of world in past decades. One very important cultural aspect is food; and an important component of Western dietary culture is processed food. At the receiving end of this diffusion are countries like Ethiopia, writes Lauren Wilson.

What seems like modernization may in fact be a very harmful emergence in Ethiopia–the growing acceptance of processed food.

There has been a relatively new introduction of processed food and restaurants that serve processed food, specifically in Addis Ababa.

Burger restaurants line the streets and pre-packaged biscuits, chips and condiments are arranged along the aisles of the somewhat new grocery stores in order to appeal to the many customers that come shopping throughout the day. 

The Collins English Dictionary definition of processed food is “foods that have been treated or prepared by a special method in order to preserve them. It then goes on to say that “pure food is safer and more filling than processed food.” 

Mechanical processing, like picking an apple off of a tree happens almost everywhere, but chemical processing involves adding preservatives and extra ingredients to food items in order for them to keep longer on the shelves of grocery stores.

The same dictionary defines preservatives as “a chemical that prevents things from decaying. Some preservatives are added to food and others are used to treat wood and metal.”

The big question here, is why would anyone willingly want to put a chemical in their body–which is a living organism–that may also be used on materials such as wood and metal.

According to Medical News Today, it has been proven that processed foods, which are more common in countries like the United States and Canada, are one of the main causes of a multitude of diseases.

“Processed foods and beverages are the biggest source of added sugar in the diet. Sugar is very unhealthy in this form and can have serious adverse effects on the metabolism when consumed in excess.”

It continues on to explain that “sugar consumption is strongly associated with some of the western world’s top killers including heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer.”

Traditional Ethiopian food consists of many vegetables, lentils and spicier meat dishes and of course injera, which is made from a local gluten free seed called teff. Overall, many or all of the cultural foods of Ethiopia are and always have been local, fresh and healthy. Sugar is not common in the Ethiopian diet, unless added to the small cup of coffee that is drunk throughout the day.

Additionally, Ethiopians have taken great care in keeping with their traditions when it comes to food and show great pride in serving it both in their home country as well as around the world.

However, with Ethiopia recently opening its borders to travellers and tourists that wish to experience this ancient culture, so comes with it the influence of the west, and strongly, in the form of food.

When looking at some of the top causes of death in Canada, malignant neoplasms (cancer) is listed as number one, cardiovascular (heart problems) is listed as number two and diabetes comes in at number five according to Statistics Canada (2014).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ran a report on Ethiopia in 2016 which listed lower respiratory infections as the number one killer, diarrheal diseases as number two and HIV comes in at number three.

With more homes incorporating processed foods into their everyday meals, it will not be long before some of those same diseases that are common killers in western societies will come to Ethiopia to add to the already long ‘causes of death’ list in Ethiopia.

“Every time a population adopts a western diet high in processed foods, they get sick. It happens within a few years. Their genes don’t change, their food does,” says Medical News Today.

What can be done to change this? Dejene Kasse, a businessman and Life Skills Coach, says that it is important that people educate themselves about the dangers of such foods. He implores that it is important to share that information as much as they can with others.

Dejene works with a group of kids a few times a week to teach them leadership skills as well as the skills to develop critically thinking minds. One of the topics of discussion in the past few weeks has been junk food and processed foods.

“They go home and they do research,” says Dejene. “They talk to their parents and their friends, they read essays and reports, and then they come and present it. They discuss all of the information they have come up with and finally we conclude on whether it is good or bad.”

Dejene also adds that many of the children, after reading some of the information about junk food online, have taken it upon themselves to make sure their families are eating healthy, which often means going back to eating more traditional Ethiopian food.   

“We come to a conclusion all together and I don’t conclude anything to them. Some of these kids have potentially saved their parents’ lives and have educated them. They have been told how bad it can be and they have stopped eating it,” says Dejene.

Maramawit Yonas who is a student in one of Dejene’s classes says that many of her friends at school are unaware of the damage it could cause to their bodies long-term.

“They don’t know it is bad for them,” says Maramawit. “Some of their parents see online that it is harmful for them so they don’t buy it, but other parents say yes to junk food anyway.”

Walking through any of the grocery stores in the city, you can find aisles of canned and processed foods full of added ingredients such as sugars and preservative chemicals. Some of these foods have just recently begun to be imported in bulk into Ethiopia and unfortunately not everyone has access to information about these foods.

Betselot Shiferaw is a regular shopper at the Bole area Safeway. When asked to give examples of processed foods, her answers include items like hot dogs, canned tuna and processed meats. While these are all correct examples of highly processed foods, condiments such as ketchup, mayo and salad dressings are some other examples that many people are unaware of.

This is why many of the burger restaurants that are now common throughout Addis Ababa could potentially become a problem. Both the buns as well as the burger sauces have added sugars and much of the meat that is used is highly processed.

But Betselot is confident that many people here won’t end up falling for the processed food trap that has begun to lay its claws on the city.

“We are not used to eating this processed food and we instead want to cook every day. We want to buy fresh because it’s cheap and it’s available, so I think we Ethiopians prefer fresh local foods over processed food.”

This may be true in some cases, but it still doesn’t change the fact that this food is now widely available to many Ethiopians. If people are not properly educated about these new imports, it could have a very damaging effect on the population.

Soliyana Tewodros is another student of Dejene’s. After doing the research for herself, she has concluded that a traditional Ethiopian diet is what is best for her. 

“For breakfast, I eat eggs and for both lunch and dinner, I eat Ethiopian cultural food. It is best for me,” says Soliyana. “Processed food does not give us energy. It makes us sick, it makes us fat and it is very harmful.”

If Soliyana, a child, can come to this kind of conclusion, then hopefully the rest of the country, with the proper education about the topic, will be able to see the truth as well.

Simply looking at western countries such as the United States and Canada should be example enough that this kind of modernization is not good for the people or for the general success of a country that has lasted through the centuries on a diet of healthy, local and homegrown food. 

Ed.’s Note: Lauren Wilson is on an internship at The Reporter.