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ScottyMcGeester's avatar

If you went back in time and ate food there, would it not agree with your stomach?

Asked by ScottyMcGeester (1011 points ) April 13th, 2014

This occurred to me while conjuring up an idea for a time travel story. I have the characters eating food in the past and then realized, “Wait, if they were used to processed foods all the time in the future, would eating all this raw food suddenly make them gassy or disagreeable?”

Keep in mind I have little idea what “processed food” means. I always assumed it means laced with chemicals/generally sterilized.

Also, a lot more bacteria would be around back then during food preparation, right? Or maybe bacteria that’s not around today we never knew about? By “back then” I mean earlier than any common food preservation in human history, so, as a random example, ancient Greece.

On the contrary too, what if you were used to eating raw foods all the time and suddenly had processed foods?

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10 Answers

zenvelo's avatar

That’s why I don’t eat processed foods. You never know when you’re going to time travel.

Really, it depends on what time period you talk about. The Romans ate a lot of foods we’d find familiar. And they were fairly hygienic. But from about 400 CE to about 1750, food handling was pretty gross, especially in Europe.

BhacSsylan's avatar

So, first note, I’m a biochemist, and who you really need is a historian and a public health major, preferably in the same person. So take the following with a grain of salt.

First off, by ‘raw’, do you mean fresh, or actually raw? Because for the last several millenia humans have cooked lots to most food, since before the dawn of agriculture. So I think you mean fresh and will answer with that. If you mean raw, well, you can probably get lots of that info from people who are on raw diets, but it’s not been a staple of human diets for a very, very long time.

Anyway, it’s more about hygiene then anything else. Depending on the time period, they’d also likely find things super bland depending on their home culture. Most spices we use today were only recently (relatively) made available for common consumption. For instance, only a few centuries ago, pepper was valued as highly as gold by weight. So, that will throw them off. Won’t make it very dangerous, though.

In general, ‘processed’ refers to foods that have been prepared (and usually stabilized somehow) prior to being bought. They may be semi-prepared (say, a boxed meal kit) or fully prepared (like a frozen meal). Different things go into the preparation, but most of the things are either sterilized (which may be as easy as pasteurization), and then stabilizers (say, something to keep it dry). Most of these are quite harmless and rather inert to us. If they weren’t the FDA (or equivalent elsewhere, at least in developed nations) wouldn’t allow them in food. Do stray things get through sometimes? Yes (see also: margarine yellow), but these are the exceptions, not the rule.

So, going back to pre-processed food, you’d definitely notice a difference in taste, and the same vice versa. Either direction would probably have a bit of digestion issues, but more from simple dietary shifts, not really processed foods, and would lead mostly to things like bad gas for a while. Think of a vegetarian going back to meat: if you jump right in your digestion will be messed up for a bit (and going from vegan to carnivore can actually cause pain and damage if you go to fast), but your system will adjust just fine eventually. We eat, say, more simple sugars and less fiber now, and that shift, more than any processing, will cause issues.

As for hygiene, yes, that would cause issues. Though whether they’d be in any more danger than general inhabitants is hard to tell, it would depend heavily. Sometimes you can have something that’s endemic but harmless to the population, but add in someone new and they get hit very hard. The classic example is smallpox, and malaria acts like this to some extent. Different, as it still causes lots of damage, but if you live to adulthood malaria, while still bad, will not incapacitate in the same way it will to someone not previously exposed. So, if there’s something transmissible in that way that the current population may be immune to, that’s possible. It’s less common than something like diphtheria and typhoid, though, which will simply take people down regardless of previous temporal residence. So, while that’s a danger, it’s a little different than what you’re talking about.

Coloma's avatar

Forget time travel, I didn’t eat the yellow sausage served on an Air China flight a few years ago. lol

ScottyMcGeester's avatar

Yeah, sorry, “raw” was the wrong word. I meant “basic preparation”, just heating it up and all. No chemicals added.

ibstubro's avatar

I would fear problems going into the future more than problems going into the past. I’m fairly basic to nature now, so I’m fairly certain I’d be fine in the past. I’m leery of GMOs, however, so I’d me much more hesitant to eat food of the future. The people themselves might have been modified to tolerate what they’re eating.

antimatter's avatar

Well depends what time period it would be and where would it be. I suppose most foods would have been without spices or artificial flavors.

Coloma's avatar

Now, I would travel back to this time zone…oooh chocolate!

www.thestoryofchocolate.com

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

How far back in time are you talking? Cave man (raw meat – ugh), medieval times (no refrigeration, rotten meat – ugh). Before the horticulturists bred the acidity out of tomatoes in the mid-1800’s, people thought they were poisonous because they made so many people sick. I would think that “getting used” to the food only goes so far. If it didn’t kill them, it probably wouldn’t kill us.

BhacSsylan's avatar

Huh? Tomatoes have been domesticated and eaten since 500 BC. As far as I am aware they were thought to be poisonous by Europeans because they share a family with nightshade.

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

You could be right, @BhacSsylan , I just remember the elderly people in my family telling us that tomatoes used to be called wolf peaches, and were considered poisonous. Grandma heard that from my great great grandmother, who lived at the time of the Civil War. I was taught in school that tomatoes used to be much more acidic in the old days, causing a lot of people to be allergic to them, but that the growers have bred the acidity out. Same as corn in the old days only had a handful of kernels on each cob, not like the corn of today.

But what do I know – this is just what I was taught.

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