Food Processing – Why Do We Need It?

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The term “processed food” has gotten a bad rap in the last few years. We are told to buy unprocessed foods because they contain less chemicals, because they are natural and healthy for us. At worst a food product should be minimally processed.

But what exactly is processed food? And is a processed food bad for you by default?

What you need to know:

Food processing is a set of methods and techniques used to transform raw food ingredients into consumable food. Food processing can be as simple as cutting up some vegetables to prepare a salad, or as complex as manufacturing a Twinkie in multiple processing facility.

From the early days of food processing, the primary goal was to extend the life of a foodstuff, by acting as a preservative. This helped balance humans’ need to eat daily with nature’s trend to provide crops only during certain times of the year. To this day, extending shelf life is one of the most important reasons food manufacturers add so many weird sounding ingredients to products.

One of the first forms of food processing, dating back to BC, was the salting of meats as a means of preservation. Sugar was introduced much later as a preservative for fruit, and thus the jam was born. Keeping food cold, either underground, or by using ice, was an effective, if primitive method of preservation until the ascent of ice boxes and recently electrical refrigeration.

In the early 19th century, a new technology was introduced to vacuum bottles of food for French troops. It would lead to the use of tin cans a decade later and thus the canning industry was born.

Pasteurization, another French invention from the mid 19th century, greatly improved the safety of milk and milk products, as well as increasing their shelf life. (We won’t get into the raw milk debate in this post).

It was only in the industrialized 20th century, and more prominently after World War II, that a third and crucial factor became the driving force behind food processing – convenience.

With legions of moms joining the work force, there was less time to toil in the kitchen, and a demand for quick, easy to prepare foods skyrocketed.

Additional benefits of food processing include lower prices to consumers due to the economies of scale of mass manufacturing, increased availability of a wide variety of foods, and a consistency in taste, texture, and mouth feel.

With so many advantages to food processing, one may ask why is almost every other American so bearish on processed foods?

Here are a few reasons:

The further a food product is from its natural form, the less it retains its healthful nutritional properties. Vitamins evaporate, minerals are leached, and fiber is long forgotten.

True, the decrease in nutrients has led to enrichment and fortification, but these add only a small number of nutrients back to a product, where hundreds of others are lost in translation from the original orange to the orange drink in a plastic bottle.

Increasing shelf life requires the use of preservatives, whether natural ones such as salt, or artificial chemicals that have more specific functions (mold inhibitors, bacteria killers, antioxidants, antimicrobial chemicals, etc…).  Some of these preservatives have adverse side affects on some or all human populations.

In order to make food more palatable and attractive, additives are used. Food colorings are a huge category of additives. The color of a food is an important psychological consideration. But in many cases, the color of the processed product is not as bold as expected by the consumer. Take strawberry yogurts. Almost all manufacturers add some sort of coloring, whether a natural red color such as beet juice, a natural but quirky bug juice, or artificial Red #40. Despite studies that have shown correlation between food colorings and cognitive problems in children, the food industry uses them because they are cheaper than natural sources.

And since cost has become a driving factor in consumer consideration, food companies are constantly on the lookout for cheaper manufacturing techniques and cheaper source ingredients. Anything that can be made in a lab is cheaper than a naturally sourced ingredient. Substituting quality ingredients with cheaper or inferior standbys is the only way to keep prices down. Don’t even ask what parts of animal carcasses go into your baloney.

Farm subsidies in the US have made corn and soy products very cheap. Guess what – soy oil and high fructose corn syrup are found in many processed items. They add the fat and sweet components that make so many junk foods tasty to us. Salt is natural and cheap, but excessive consumption causes hypertension and other health problems.

We haven’t talked about processing that takes place before the “ingredients” are harvested (GMO crops, hormones and antibiotics to for livestock, etc..), but these too are affecting the food we eat, in ways that science has yet to get a full grasp of.

What to do at the supermarket:

You know our position – the more you can do to prepare your food from scratch, the better service you’re providing to your family. Buying fresh or frozen produce and whipping up a soup, a salad, or a pasta sauce is not rocket science and does not require hours of kitchen work.

But hey, we’re pragmatists too. Try to find the balance that best works for you. But the next time you complain about not having enough time to cook, consider how much time you spend watching TV and on Facebook.

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Here are some interesting findings from a recent survey about processed foods. 1500 consumers across all demographics in the US were surveyed by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) and Artemis Strategy Group.

43% of consumers have a negative attitude towards processed foods, a term which carries a negative perception.

What is processed food? Is a processed food bad by default?

Food processing is a set of methods and techniques used to transform raw food ingredients into consumable food. Food processing can be as simple as cutting up some vegetables to make a salad, or as complex as creating a Twinkie in a mega processing facility.

From the early days of food processing, the primary goal was to extend the life of a foodstuff, by acting as a preservative. This helped balance humans’ need to eat daily with nature’s trend to provide crops only during certain times of the year. To this day, extending shelf life is one of the most important reasons food manufacturers add so many ominous sounding ingredients to products.

One of the first forms of food processing, dating back to BC, was the salting of meats as a means of preservation. Sugar was introduced much later as a preservative for fruit, and thus the jam was born. Keeping food cold, either underground, or by using ice, was an effective, if primitive method of preservation until the ascent of ice boxes and recently electrical refrigeration.

In the early 19th century a new technology was introduced to vacuum bottles of food for French troops. It would lead to the use of tin cans several decades later.

Pasteurization, another French invention, greatly improved the safety of milk and milk products, as well as increasing their shelf life.

It was only after World War II that a third and crucial factor became the driving force behind food processing – convenience. With legions of moms joining the work force, there was less time to toil in the kitchen, and a demand for quick, easy to prepare foods skyrocketed.

Additional benefits of food processing include lower prices to consumers due to the economies of scale of mass manufacturing, increased availability of a wide variety of foods, and a consistency in taste, texture, and mouth feel.

With so many advantages to food processing, why is almost every other American so bearish on processed foods?

Here are a few reasons:

The farther a food product is from its natural form, the less it retains its healthful nutritional properties. Vitamins evaporate, minerals are leached, and fiber is long forgotten.

The decrease in nutrients has led to enrichment and fortification, but these add only a small number of nutrients back to a product, where hundreds of others are lost in translation from the original orange to the orange drink in a plastic bottle.

Increasing shelf life requires the use of preservatives, whether natural ones such as salt, or artificial chemicals that have more specific functions (mold inhibitors, bacteria killers, antioxidants, antimicrobial chemicals, etc…). Some of these preservatives have adverse side affects on some or all human populations.

In order to make food more palatable and attractive, additives are used. The color of a food is an important psychological consideration. But in many cases, the color of the processed product is not as bold as expected by the consumer. Take most strawberry yogurts. Almost all add some sort of coloring, whether a natural red color such as beet juice, a natural but irky bug juice color, or artificial Red #40. Despite studies that have shown correlation between food colorings and cognitive problems in children, the food industry uses them because they are cheaper than natural sources.

And since cost has become a driving factor in consumer consideration, food companies are constantly on the lookout for cheaper manufacturing techniques and cheaper source ingredients. Anything that can be made in a lab is cheaper than a naturally sourced ingredient. Substituting quality ingredients with cheaper or inferior standbys is the only way to keep prices down. Don’t even ask what parts of animal carcasses go into your baloney.

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  • http://www.thefrugaldietitian.com/ Frugaldieitian

    Thanks for a great piece on processed food.

  • Tina P.

    Thanks for breaking this down, I really appreciate the reminder. My biggest frustration right now in processed vs. unprocessed is CALORIES. Since beginning my journey to better health and weight loss, I have been driving myself crazy by trying to stick within a certain calorie range and monitor portion sizes. What I find is that more whole/unprocessed foods tend to be higher in calorie content, even if they do contain more valuable nutritive properties — brown rice, and raw agave for example, have more calories per serving than their processed counterparts white rice and white sugar. The seemingly easy alternative would be to eat low calorie diet foods… but the ingredient lists read more like a science project gone wrong. I absolutely hate how products disguised as nutritious and healthy are actually so far from that, in terms of what goes into your body. Fooducate and commenters, any suggestions? Thank you!!!!

    • Anonymous

      I’m confused by your statements about agave and brown rice having more calories.  Where are you getting your information?
      Agave(like hfcs) contains more fructose than regular sugar..thus one thinks you could use slightly less, and consume fewer calories.  As I understand it “raw” agave does undergo some processing.

    • Terri

      I am right there with you, trying to eat healthier and losing weight. I have found for myself counting calories is not the best. I pay attention to fiber and especially protein. Also, keep in mind your body has a much easier time processing whole natural foods than it does processed foods.

  • Analyzer

    Pretty fair analysis considering the biased source: “With legions of moms joining the work force, there was less time to toil
    in the kitchen, and a demand for quick, easy to prepare foods
    skyrocketed”

    Bottom line would be those legions of moms should quit work and get back to toiling in the kitchen to rescue their families from evil quick, easy to prepare foods? Good luck with that agenda, foodies. How about always including that intention right up front whenever you are bashing perfectly safe, abundant, affordable “processed foods”? Just say it, modern boutique eating means barefoot and pregnant at home in the kitchen!

    • http://www.fooducate.com/blog Fooducate

      Dads can cook too.

      • justcheckin

        true dat.

    • Penny

      My parents both worked full-time during my entire life. We had unprocessed meals at home basically every day. Going out was an occasional treat. My parents always made sure we had lots of veggies and a lean meat with dinner. Plus, once we were older, we also were responsible for helping prepare the meals so it saved time, taught us valuable lessons, and kept us out of trouble.

      My husband and I also both work full time and we still find time to prepare wholesome meals at home with minimal processed food. A few of our friends don’t bother to make meals as they complain they have no time, but they seem to find plenty of time to watch TV, so it’s really all about priorities.Working full time is no excuse for not cooking at home. It just takes a tiny bit of pre-planning (take the frozen steak out of the freezer the night before) and a bit of dedication to eating as well as you can.

      • FG

         This must be the reason why I watch less and less TV (or pretty much record everything and watch later)

    • http://twitter.com/QuipsTravails Michele Hays

      I can think of a half-dozen recipes I can make from scratch quicker or almost as quick than their ready-to-eat counterparts.  Education is the key, not throwing up your hands and eating whatever calories fall from the sky.

    • Guest

       There is a fundamental conundrum here. Moms are all working and too busy/exhausted to spend 4-6 hours each day in the kitchen cooking up a storm with expensive boutique food. But if they quit work to stay home and cook, there will be one less paycheck coming in and the diminished household budget will not support lovely overpriced “unprocessed food” delicacies. If mom works we can maybe afford to eat trendy food that’s pre-processed. If mom quits to stay home we really will be eating Spam(TM) because that’s all we will be able to afford. This blog is classic — affluent food snobs out of touch with the realities of lower middle class economics, instructing us all how we should live.

    • FG

       I freeze soups, rice and beans and try to plan as much possible. I may cook a huge batch on Sunday and try more or less plan something for the week, leveraging leftovers and frozen food. It doesn’t work all the time but it can be a creative exercise…

    • AnnoyedAnonymous

      Oh, why not push the agenda of equality instead and have legions of fathers join the kitchen fun instead? That one probably shot miles over your head, didn’t it. Would you stop trolling, already!

    • justcheckin

      what the hell are you trying to say?

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    It’s all about balance and finding out what works for you. It’s also about accepting responsibility for your actions and outcome.

  • Lauren

    we need food processing because Hungry Girl would be out of a gig without it. 

  • http://twitter.com/QuipsTravails Michele Hays

    THANK YOU.  In many populations, I think the mantra “fresh is best” leads to even worse food choices: if fresh isn’t an option, people may decide to go with junk food instead.  There are plenty of healthy, lightly-processed and preserved foods out there: dried beans, oatmeal, cheese, plain yogurt. 

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