There is, and always has been, controversy surrounding the subject of food processing. To those who adamantly choose whole food over processed, this is a hot button issue. Rather than dismissing processed food outright, however, it may prove beneficial to take the time to learn about food processing in America, and the benefits and disadvantages of this form of food preservation.
Brief History of Food Processing
It may be difficult for people to believe that food processing in America dates back to the 1940s, but eating processed foods is pretty normal for most people alive today.
- Introduced in 1941, M&M candies were one of the first processed foods. According to the legend, the candies were invented to provide soldiers with candy they could eat without getting sticky hands.
- General Foods created Maxwell House instant coffee, a product that was supplied to soldiers and ultimately introduced to the public in 1945.
- In 1943, the government issued new guidelines for adding vitamins and minerals to bread and grain products. In order to offset nutrient deficiencies, these products were enriched with iron, thiamine, riboflavin and B vitamins.
- The Cherry Burrell Corporation developed a continuous pasteurization process in 1946, which made it possible to create 7,000 pounds of butter out of cream and package all of it within two hours.
- The availability of frozen vegetables prompted all-out competition between canned and frozen vegetables.
From baking mixes to powdered drinks, Reddi-wip (which was made with real cream), frozen orange juice, canned V-8 juice and popular product such as Cheetos and Fritos, processed foods are a part of everyday American life.
Controversy over Processed Food
“Processed food” has recently become synonymous with unhealthy eating habits and a lack of understanding about proper nutrition and the importance of whole foods. However, the Friedman Sprout, a student-run newspaper from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, has a simple definition of processed food: processing is any deliberate change that occurs to a food before consumption.
This definition encompasses pretty much all forms of food processing, including canning, freezing or pasteurization. But the definition doesn’t exclude the other end of the continuum which involves so much processing that an entire meal could be prepared from ingredients that were assembled in a laboratory. Although these foods are arguably not good to eat all the time, some processing may be acceptable.
Since it’s not reasonable to lump all forms of food processing together, the International Food Information Council Foundation created a scale that defines the different levels of processing.
- Minimally processed foods include bagged salads, packages of vegetables found in the produce sections of supermarkets, or packaged whole or ground nuts or coffee. Canned beans and tuna also fall in this category, as does baby food that is pureed and jarred, and frozen fruits and vegetables.
- Moderately processed foods have ingredients added for safety or to ensure that food retains visual and taste appeal. These ingredients may include sweeteners, colors, flavors, oils, spices and preservatives. Moderate processing occurs in foods like cake mixes, salad dressings, gelatin, instant potatoes, pudding mixes and tomato sauces.
- Heavily processed foods undergo many processes so they are ready to eat right out of the package, like granola bars, crackers, cookies, TV dinners, frozen pizzas, ice cream, carbonated beverages, spreadable cheese, and crackers.
Top Four Benefits of Food Processing
1. People typically think of food processing as something bad, but they fail to consider that many of the most loved foods and beverages require processing for consumption.
- In its raw state, a cacao bean isn’t edible. But thanks to food processing, the bean is turned into every form of chocolate that is available.
- Coffee beans aren’t edible in their raw, unroasted state. Roasting is a form of processing that turns those beans into a consumable form.
- Wine undergoes processing to turn the grapes into liquid before they are aged in barrels.
2. Food processing also helps support a strong world economy. Imported foods like cheeses, pastas and bottled drinks undergo many of the same types of processing that dairy products and other foods undergo in the U.S. The processing is designed to make these foods safe to eat, and to prevent insects and other contaminants from entering the packaging.
3. Many people rely on processed foods to help them eat a balanced diet because they don’t have the ability, time, or energy to prepare foods themselves.
- Busy mothers with picky eaters often rely on processed foods for easy snacks for when they don’t have time to prepare foods that their kids will eat.
- People with disabilities often live alone with the help of mobility solutions, but they still may have a hard time with the physical requirements of preparing foods from scratch.
- Individuals who don’t know how to cook are typically consumers of processed foods because they don’t know how to make meals.
- Teens often snack while their parents are out of the house, leading them to rely on processed foods.
4. Processing also makes it possible for seasonal produce, which contains many essential vitamins and minerals, to be packaged for later consumption. This makes it possible for people, especially those who live in rural areas without easy access to supermarkets or other food sources, to eat a healthier diet all year.
Obviously, there are two sides to every story. People must understand that, while some forms of food processing are unnecessary and even dangerous, not all fall into this category. So the next time you hear someone overgeneralizing about processed food, take a few minutes to set them straight. You just may teach them a thing or two!