What are Processed Foods? Food Industry secrets explained

What are Processed Foods? Food Industry secrets explained

What are processed foods?  Processed foods are foods that are processed in a way that that changes their basic nature

Processed foods have been getting a bad rep.  The media is blaming processed foods for obesity and other various diseases. 

You may be surprised to learn that processed food is more than boxed pasta, potato chips and fast food.  Surprisingly, homemade soup, salad and even chopped apple are processed foods.  Also, not all processed foods are unhealthy or “bad”

Food processing is everywhere.  Most foods (especially perishable food) need to be processed ensure safety and consumer acceptance. 

Many foods need to be processed ensure you do not get sick from eating them or so they taste better

Smiling Flask with orange liquid

You can make smart food choices by learning more about food and reading the nutrition information on the package.

Food Industry Insider Investigation

A few years ago, I gained weight and I could not figure out how to lose it.  I tried exercising more, nothing seemed to work. 

I then had the great that that I should eliminate “processed foods” from my diet. 

Wow, I am laughing as I write this section.  I work in the Food Industry and somehow I thought processed foods could be eliminated… 

After a few days I realized eliminating processed foods is not possible.  Even the ingredients we use to cook at home are “processed foods”. 

After this revelation, I have spent countless hours researching and investigating processed foods.

Processed food is more than boxed pasta, potato chips and fast food.  Surprisingly, homemade soup, salad and even chopped apple are processed foods.

Deep dive into the term “processed foods”

First, what are processed foods?  Processed foods are foods processed in a way that that changes the basic nature of the food

Heating, freezing, dicing, juicing and cooking are all examples of ways food can become processed food.  Also, by this definition, when you cook and prepare foods you are processing that food. 

Canned foods are processed foods
Processed foods are all around you. You can make better food choices by understanding the definition of processed food.

The exact definition varies.

Additionally, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines processing of food as:

“Manufacturing/processing means making food from one or more ingredients, or synthesizing, preparing, treating, modifying or manipulating food, including food crops or ingredients. Examples of manufacturing/processing activities include: Baking, boiling, bottling, canning, cooking, cooling, cutting, distilling, drying/dehydrating raw agricultural commodities to create a distinct commodity (such as drying/dehydrating grapes to produce raisins), evaporating, eviscerating, extracting juice, formulating, freezing, grinding, homogenizing, irradiating, labeling, milling, mixing, packaging (including modified atmosphere packaging), pasteurizing, peeling, rendering, treating to manipulate ripening, trimming, washing, or waxing.”

Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

According to the FDA’s definition, ingredients we use at home like baking soda, flour, vanilla extract and salt are processed. 

The creator of the NOVA system sums it up well:

“One obvious reason is that nowadays, practically all food is processed in some sense and in some way. The term ‘processing’ … is very general and therefore not helpful, and so judgements of foods simply because they are ‘processed’ are not meaningful.”

Carlos A. Monteiro

Processing includes the addition of ingredients to the food.  Ingredients (also known as Food Additives) include preservatives, flavors, nutrients and taste modifiers.  Additive are used for a variety of reasons and functions.

Why are foods processed?

Food is processed for a varieties of reasons.  The main reasons are to reduce spoilage, to make the food taste better, increase diversity and convenience, and to increase nutrition.

Reduce Spoilage

The first and main reason food are processed is to reduce spoilage.  As modern day consumers, we benefit greatly from food processing.  First off, you do not have to worry about food spoilage or foodborne illness nearly as often as your ancestors did. 

You know you are consuming safe products that are what they say they are thanks to the food laws.  Food processing extends the amount of time in which a raw material are used and eaten. 

In addition, the packaged food products usually have much longer shelf life than the raw materials.

Processing of foods increases the amount of time you have to use it. Mushrooms go bad within 5 to 7 days of picking
Processing foods increases the amount of time you have to use it. Mushrooms go bad within 5 to 7 days of picking

We would have to consume raw materials such as within days of harvest or catching without food processing. 

For example, mushrooms spoil within 5 – 7 days of picking.  Without food processing, those mushrooms could only be distributed and sold for a few days before they would need to be cooked.  The range of distribution would a lot less. You would have a lot less variety and most foods would have stored in the refrigerator.

Along with this, reduction of spoiled food increases the options you have as a consumer.  It also decreases the amount of food waste we generate as a planet.

Make the food tastier

In addition, the desire to make raw materials more appealing to you is very important for the food industry.  Researchers create food ingredients to fulfill needs in the product design.

For example, you may enjoy a hamburger from a Fast Food chain more than one you make at home.  Flavors and texture ingredients are added to make the burger taste better.  Alternatively, the burger may be cooked in a specialized piece of equipment.

Increased Diversity & Convenience

Another effect and benefit is the diversity and convenience of food you can now consume.  Without food processing, you would only be able to eat regional foods.  You would also have to make everything from scratch. 

You would also only eat the foods that were ready at that time point in the year.  As a Curious Food Detective you would not be able to eat exotic foods from all over the world.   

Canned and frozen fruit would not be an option.  Side note – Both are good options when fresh fruit is not available and increase your nutrition throughout the year, even the winter.

Food products would have to be prepared from scratch without food processing. 

Food innovation has really been driven by people like you wanting to spend less and less time cooking.  Think about the amount of time even your grandparents spent cooking. I can guess it was much more time than you spend cooking.

Strawberries when they are cut are considered processed.  Pre sliced strawberries are healthy, quality convenience foods that reduce how much time you spend cooking.
Pre sliced strawberries are healthy, quality convenience foods that reduce how much time you spend cooking.

Another great examples of convenience processed food is pre-cut vegetables and pre-washed, bagged lettuce or spinach.  These healthy, quality convenience foods reduce how much time you spend preparing food and cooking.

Increase nutrition

Finally, research has shown that processing can sometimes improve the nutritional value of foods.  Cooking and other processing techniques may make nutrients more available for the body. 

For example, tomatoes that are cooked and canned are considered healthier than raw tomatoes.  Tomatoes are red because they contain an antioxidant called lycopene.  Processing tomatoes increases the availability of the lycopene to the body. 

Also, nutrients are added to foods to increase their nutrient value.  Fortification is the term for this and many food products are fortified.

Processed tomatoes are considered healthier than raw tomatoes. Lycopene is more avaliable
Processed tomatoes are considered healthier than raw tomatoes.

Which Foods are processed?

Food processing is more integral in your life than you likely realize.  The majority of food you consume is likely processed.  Even when you cook the food at home, you are eating what is considered processed foods.

In today’s world, we all consume a global food supply.  Products and ingredients are sourced and used all over the world.  In order for products to be viable over such a wide area, they need to be processed.

Is pasta or bread a processed food?

Yes, pasta is considered a processed food, regardless if you buy boxed pasta or make it from scratch. Bread is also considered a processed food.

Bread basket with bread, soda can with soda in glass are all examples of processed foods. These may be highly processed or ultra processed
Both bread and pasta are considered processed food.

What are the benefits of processed food to you?

Processed food have evolved out of need so there are benefits.  The main benefits are quality, fortification, diversity and reduce foodborne illness.

  1. First, processing allows foods to be harvested at their peak and eaten much later than the raw food would allow. 
  2. Second, as mentioned earlier many processed, packaged foods are fortified.  Fortification through food has decreased diseases over time. 
  3. Third, food processing allows you, a Curious Food Detective, to try exotic foods from all over the world.  Diversity in what we eat has exponentially increased due to modern food processing. 
  4. The final benefit is reduced food poisoning.  Since the foods usability time is extended in a safe way, we get sick from foods less than our ancestors.

How do you avoid processed foods?

You probably cannot avoid processed food all together. Food processing is everywhere.  Any time you cook and prepare food, you are processing food.

Avoiding processed foods is not doable in today’s world.  Even if you live on a farm, you would need to process foods in order to preserve them. 

On the other hand, you can reduce the amount of processed food you consume

In order to do this, try to cook your food fresh products (including vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans and whole grains) as often as you can.  Also, include whole foods as much as possible

To reduce your processed food cook fresh foods as much as possible.
To reduce your processed food intake, cook fresh foods as much as possible.

As an example, when you make pasta a home, make the pasta from flour, water, eggs.  Then make the sauce from tomatoes and herbs. 

What are Bad Processed Foods?

As mentioned, people are blaming processed for many disease and declining public health. 

I do not love the term bad processed foods.  However, research shows there are some foods that are healthier than others.

Yes, there are a category of processed foods which are highly processed or ultra-processed.  Consumption of these should be limited as much as possible.  Numerous research studies have linked these types of food with obesity and disease.

You can make wise food choices by learning more about food and reading the nutrition information on the package. 

Two of the things to watch out for in processed foods are added sugars and sodium.  Many processed foods contain high amounts of these.

Added Sugars

Added sugars are any sugar that is not naturally occurring in the food and has been added as an ingredient

Sugars are added to all kinds of processed foods.  For example, bread, salsa, sauces, cereals, granola bars can all have high amounts of added sugar. 

Luckily, the updated Nutrition Facts label identifies the amount of added sugars in a product.

Please note, if the nutrition label shows 0 grams of added sugar, that means there is less than 0.5 grams.  Nutrition labels are rounded.  Because of this you need to also look at the product’s ingredient list.

Processed foods can have high sodium levels. To reduce choose foods labeled with “no salt added”, “low-sodium”, “reduced-sodium” as pictured
Processed foods can have high sodium levels. To reduce choose foods labeled with “no salt added” (as pictured), “low-sodium” or “reduced-sodium”.

Added Sodium

Processed foods can contribute lots of sodium to your diets because salt is one of the oldest forms of preservation used by humankind.  It is commonly added to preserve foods and extend shelf life.

Many canned vegetables, soups and sauces have added salt. Choose foods labeled with “no salt added”, “low-sodium” or “reduced-sodium” if to reduce the salt you consume.

Final Thoughts

Processed foods is defined as foods processed in a way that that changes the basic nature of the food. 

Although, processed foods have been gaining a bad rep, they are everywhere.  Not all processed foods are unhealthy or “bad”. 

Foods are processed ensure you do not get food poisoning and so they taste better. 

You can make smart food choices by learning more about food and reading the nutrition information on the package.

What do think? Are you surprised?


References

Shewfelt, Robert L.  Introducing Food Science.  Published in US.  CRC Press.  2009

Nova groups for food processing.  https://world.openfoodfacts.org/nova. Retrieved 12 July 2020.

Processed Foods: What you should know.  https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/processed-foods-what-you-should-know.  Retrieved 12 July 2020.

Food processing: The Advantages of Processed Foods.  https://www.eufic.org/en/food-production/article/the-greatest-thing-since-sliced-bread-a-review-of-the-benefits-of-processed.  Retrieved 12 July 2020.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Food Labeling Guide: Guidance for Industry. January 2013.

Monteiro CA. Nutrition and health. The issue is not food, nor nutrients, so much as processing. Public health nutrition. 2009 May;12(5):729-31.  https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition/article/nutrition-and-health-the-issue-is-not-food-nor-nutrients-so-much-as-processing/0C514FC9DB264538F83D5D34A81BB10A.  Retrieved 7 September 2020. 

Monteiro CA, Cannon G, Moubarac JC, Levy RB, Louzada ML, Jaime PC. The UN Decade of Nutrition, the NOVA food classification and the trouble with ultra-processing. Public Health Nutrition. 2018 Jan;21(1):5-17. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition/article/un-decade-of-nutrition-the-nova-food-classification-and-the-trouble-with-ultraprocessing/2A9776922A28F8F757BDA32C3266AC2A .  Retrieved 7 September 2020.


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