Processed Food: Fad or Fitnah?

processed foodGo to any supermarket and you will see shelves upon shelves of ready-to-cook meals, canned food, ready-to-use fried onions, frozen vegetables and the like – all tempting you to save your time and try them out. At the same time, you might have heard that processed food is totally unhealthy, and you should avoid it as much as possible. So what should you do?

It is important to remember that virtually everything we eat is processed in some way or the other. Peeling, cutting, mashing, cooking, baking or frying is all referred to as food processing. All cooked food is, therefore, processed food. It doesn’t mean that all processed food is bad food. There is a huge difference between mechanical processing, which may be essential for making food eatable (such as peeling the bananas), heat processing that changes the texture and may change the nutritional value, but at the same time makes food more tasty and easily digestible, and chemical processing that is largely used by the industrial food manufacturers and which can turn good, natural ingredients into nutritionally worthless or even harmful products. Such chemically processed products are most commonly referred to as processed foods and must be avoided.

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Food: My Fuel for Faith

food and faithIs there a deeper meaning to our meals? Does the food we eat along with how, where, and when we eat make a difference to our health, family, and faith? We, as Muslims, must consider that any choice we make, no matter how mundane, has implications for our faith. Food, which is seemingly innocent and a blessing of Allah (swt), has a vital role to play in who we are. This article looks at food choices through the filter of Islam and Seerah. We will talk about how consumption of different types of food has an impact on our behaviour, and investigate whether or not food quality and quantity dictates our thoughts, behaviour, and actions. As the old adage goes: “You are what you eat.” We will also discuss what Shifa and Tayyab food is.

Avoiding Extremes

Before we go on, let’s ponder over what it means to eat as a Muslim. Eating is a part of worship for us as food is a blessing granted by Allah (swt). We supplicate to Allah (swt) to bless our food, and we eat only after we have recited His name. We must be cognizant of how our food reaches us, the people who are involved in it, and how its production fulfills Allah’s (swt) command for us. Allah (swt) tells us in verse 31 of Surah Al-Araf: “O Children of Adam! Take Your adornment (by wearing Your clean clothes), while praying and going round (the Tawaf of) the Kabah, and eat and drink but waste not by extravagance, certainly He (Allah) likes not Al-Musrifoon (those who waste by extravagance).”

So where do our eating habits fall, according to the above Ayah?

  1. Necessity
  2. Satiety
  3. Excess

Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim mentions two extremes regarding food.

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Manna Salwa – Simple Choices vs Variety Gourmet

manna salwa“And we shaded you with clouds and sent down on you Al-Manna and the quail, (saying): ‘Eat of the good lawful things We have provided for you,’ (but they rebelled). And they did not wrong Us, but they wronged themselves.” (Al-Baqarah 2:57)

“And remember when you said: ‘O Musa! We cannot endure one kind of food. So invoke your Lord for us to bring forth for us of what the earth grows, its herbs, its cucumbers, its Fum (wheat or garlic), its lentils and its onions.’ He said: ‘Would you exchange that which is better for that which is lower? Go you down to any town and you shall find what you want!’ And they were covered with humiliation and misery, and they drew on themselves the Wrath of Allah…” (Al-Baqarah 2:61)

I especially remember the children of Israel on the days when I have to venture into the kitchen to cook a decent meal, racing against time and juggling the multitude of roles assigned to me as a working mother. I try to imagine what it must have been like to be served the convenient and pristine cuisine by none other but the King of the Worlds Allah (swt) as His Mercy and divine hospitality. Tafsir Ibn-e-Kathir mentions that Mujahid said: “Al-Manna was a kind of sweet gum, and As-Salwa, a kind of bird (i.e., quail).” This food descended from the Paradise, and was collected by the children of Israel effortlessly.

Someone among them brainstormed the idea of ‘variety is the spice of life’, turned up their nose against the Lord’s superior bounties, and demanded from Musa (as) to arrange inferior food grown on the planet.

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Busting Some Common Food Myths

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“O you who believe! Make not unlawful the Taiyibat (all that is good as regards foods, things, deeds, beliefs, persons, etc.), which Allah has made lawful for you, and transgress not. Verily, Allah does not like the transgressors.” (Al-Maidah 5:87)

Allah (swt) has created a beautiful world full of His bounties for His creatures. Shukr, or being thankful for these bounties, is enjoined on people in countless passages of the Quran. In the above verse, Allah (swt) discourages us from adopting extremes in behaviour. Let’s relate this to some common food myths being practiced currently.

Eight glasses of water a day

People are generally advised to drink “an 8-ounce glass of water, 8 times a day,” which makes 1.9 litres. In reality, water requirement depends upon many factors, such as one’s health, level of activity, and location. On an average, in a moderate climate, men are required to take 3 litres (about 13 cups) of total beverages in a day and women need to take 2.2 litres. It is also important to include all fluid intake towards the daily total. Water intake needs to increase in certain conditions, such as for pregnant or breastfeeding women and people who are suffering from vomiting, diarrhea or other conditions that cause unusual water losses.

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Well-Fed or Welfare?

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Why do we eat what we eat? For most of history this question has been quite simple; we eat to survive. But in the context of material abundance, when food is plentiful and easily accessible, this question becomes quite different. What do we feel like eating? Whether it’s our choice of breakfast cereal or the spread at a buffet lunch, there is always a multitude of choices to satisfy our present craving. Most of us make these choices based on our personal taste but when we’re at the supermarket, we’re looking for the best value for money. This fuels the current global market for food; choice, taste, and price. But what’s missing from this equation?

First we have to look at how industrialization has changed the way we produce, package, and distribute food. Small family farms have been replaced by massive agri-businesses. Farm production has shifted to mono crops with global market value. Industrial fertilizers and pesticides have increased crop yields but pollute water, destroy wildlife, and deplete the soil of natural minerals. Meat is industrially produced in increasingly large quantities, creating a huge demand for fodder. Convenience foods laden with chemicals are produced in factories and distributed all over the world. As food becomes plentiful, for some, it comes with a huge price tag for all.

We might consider these changes to be something we have little control over, and therefore, have no accountability for; but a closer look at the problem reveals that we are not only accountable but even responsible. Every time we put something into our shopping cart, we are participating in this unsustainable system. We need to rethink our decisions about food by inserting the question of welfare into the equation – regarding our health, our planet, and every living thing on it.

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