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Gleaning From the Food of Yesterday: The Industrial Revolution

Updated: Mar 4, 2020

City factories during the industrial revolution.

The creativity and innovation of mankind can produce incredible and rapid change. Through periods of history, this is evident as lifestyles transformed due to the modern inventions of the day. However, often times there were negative consequences that resulted from these modernizations. This is what we will evaluate today as we discuss the impacts which the Industrial Revolution had upon our food system.

Before the age of the 1700’s, most people lived on farms and were thus self-employed and produced the majority of their own food. There was no freeway system, only dirt roads. Travel and transportation was slow and there was no refrigeration to preserve many foods. However, much of this changed with the age of the Industrial Revolution, from the 1700’s to the 1900’s. The advent of factories drove people to pursue jobs in the city. This rapid urbanization caused a drastic decrease in small farms, and thus, a demand for the mass production of food. And the newly built mills and locomotives of the day provided the answer.

Whole grains were taken to mills where the nutrients that subjected them to microbial action and insects were removed. This now refined product was then shipped by locomotives to different cities where the crowds were fed. This was just the beginning of the refining of grains.

Notably, other pivotal shifts occurred, not just in food production but also in health care. At the time, the cities were not equipped for the masses. Not only was housing inadequate, leaving some people homeless, but there was no modern plumbing which created open sewers in the streets. This horrific lack of hygiene caused diseases to grow rampant. From this, the use of vaccinations and antibiotics was birthed. While this saved many lives, it also created many chronic conditions we face today, such as digestive issues from a sterilized gut.

Understanding this quick overview does not allow us to fully return to the simplicity of our food and health care systems. That may never be possible, or desirable--considering that the era before the Industrial Revolution had challenges of its own. However, perhaps we can move forward by embracing the benefits of new inventions and redeeming the ways of health that were compromised--specifically fresh, unrefined, local foods. As we do this, we will still work with modern medicine, but may not have to rely so heavily upon certain drugs as we support our bodies’ natural ability to fight disease and sustain health. This will be a revolution of its own.


If you have questions or comments for Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, Maria Adam, email her at or call her at (607) 661-8221.

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