In food processing, harvested crops or slaughtered animals are used as raw materials for making and packaging attractive, marketable food products with a long shelf life.
Attractive means that the product is both good looking and good looking. In order to be marketable, it must match the type of food that consumers demand. Food with a long shelf life can reduce waste costs for producers, distributors and retailers.
The development of food processing
Food processing dates back to our prehistoric times – when fire was discovered and cooking was invented. The various ways in which food is cooked are forms of food processing.
Food preservation also began in prehistoric times, with the first “long-lived” foods created by drying food in the sun and preserving it with salt. Before the invention of canning in the early 1800s, soldiers, sailors, and other travelers commonly used salt to preserve food.
The first convenience food (bulgur) was invented by ancient Bulgarians about 8,000 years ago when they found a way to cook and sun-dry whole grains so that the grains only needed to be reheated to be eaten.
One of the first ready-to-eat foods was invented by the ancient Celts when they invented haggis and what is now known as Cornish pasty.
Cheese, another processed food, was invented by Arabian nomads when they jogged all day on camels and ponies and discovered that milk curdled.
Prehistoric methods of cooking and preserving food remained largely unchanged until the Industrial Revolution.
The development of modern food processing technology began in the early 19th century in response to the needs of the military. Vacuum bottling was invented in 1809 so Napoleon could feed his army. Canning was invented in 1810, and canned food became common around the world after canners stopped using lead (which is highly toxic) as a can lining. Pasteurization, discovered in 1862, significantly improved the microbiological safety of milk and similar products.
Cooling reduces the rate at which bacteria multiply, which in turn slows down the rate at which food spoils. Cooling has been used as a storage technology for hundreds of years. Beginning in the mid-18th century, igloos were filled with fresh snow in winter, used to keep food cold, and worked well most of the year in northern climates.
Before the first domestic refrigerator was introduced in 1915, commercial refrigeration used toxic refrigerants, making the technology unsafe in the home, where it was used for nearly 40 years.
Home refrigerators gained widespread acceptance after the invention of non-toxic and non-flammable refrigerants such as Freon in the 1930s.
The expansion of the food processing industry in the second half of the 20th century was driven by three needs: (a) food to efficiently feed armies during World War II, (b) food that could be eaten in zero gravity during raids into outer space, and (c) the pursuit of Convenience demanded by a busy consumer society.
To meet these food needs, scientists have invented a range of other processing techniques such as freeze-drying, spray-drying and fruit juice concentrate. They also introduced artificial sweeteners, coloring agents and chemical preservatives. In the final years of the last century, they invented instant dry soups, reconstituted juices and fruits, and “homemade” meals (MREs) favored by the military’s top brass, not infantrymen.
The “quest for convenience” has led to frozen meals expanding from simple bags of frozen peas to concentrated juices and complex TV dinners. Those who process food now base their market appeal on the perceived value of time.
Benefits of Processed Foods
Initially, processed foods helped alleviate food shortages and improve overall nutrition by making new foods available across the globe. Modern food processing offers many additional benefits:
- Inactivates disease-causing microorganisms such as salmonella found in fresh vegetables and raw meat, reducing foodborne illness and making food safer.
- Because processed foods are less prone to spoilage than fresh foods, modern processing, storage and transportation can deliver a wide variety of foods from around the world, giving us choices in the supermarket that our ancestors could not have imagined.
- Processing often improves the taste of food, but it can also have the opposite effect.
- The nutritional value of foods can be enhanced by adding additional nutrients and vitamins during processing.
- Nutritional values could also become more consistent and reliable.
- Modern processing techniques can also improve the quality of life for people with allergies by removing the proteins that cause allergic reactions.
- The mass production of food means that the cost of producing processed food is much lower than the cost of cooking from raw materials at home.
Processed foods are also very convenient. Families are freed from the time-consuming task of preparing and cooking food in its natural state…the food processing industry produces everything from ready-to-boil peeled potatoes to cooked meals that only need to be microwaved for a few minutes.
Processed foods are certainly a boon. But all is not sweet and easy.
In general, fresh, unprocessed foods contain higher proportions of natural fiber, vitamins and minerals than similar foods that have been processed by the food industry. For example, vitamin C is destroyed by heat, so fresh fruit contains more vitamin C than canned fruit.
In fact, nutrients are often deliberately removed from foods during processing to improve taste, appearance or shelf life. Examples include bread, pasta, and ready-made meals.
The result is empty calories. Processed foods have a higher ratio of calories to other essential nutrients than fresh, unprocessed foods. They are usually energy dense, but poor in nutrition.
Due to additives, preservatives, chemically hardened vegetable oils or trans fats, and excess sugar and salt, processing can introduce hazards that unprocessed foods do not. In fact, the additives in processed foods…flavors, sweeteners, stabilizers, texture enhancers, and preservatives, etc…may have little nutritional value, or may actually be unhealthy.
Preservatives used to extend shelf life, such as nitrites or sulfites, may cause ill health. In fact, adding many of the chemicals used for flavoring and preservation has been shown to increase the risk of many types of cancer by causing human and animal cells to grow rapidly without dying.
Inexpensive ingredients that mimic the properties of natural ingredients, such as substituting chemically hardened vegetable oils for more expensive natural saturated fats or trans fats made from cold-pressed oils, have been shown in many studies to cause serious health problems . . but because of the low cost and consumer ignorance, they are still widely used.
Sugar, fat and salt are often added to processed foods to improve flavor and as preservatives. As diabetics, we are all too aware of excess sugar, fat, and the effects it can have on our already damaged systems. Eating a lot of processed food means consuming too much sugar, fat and salt, which, even in good health, can lead to problems like high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, ulcers, stomach cancer, obesity, and of course diabetes.
Another problem with processed foods is that where low-quality ingredients are used, this can be masked during the manufacturing process.
In the processing industry, food will go through several intermediate steps in independent factories before being finished in the factory where it is finished.
It’s similar to using subcontractors in car manufacturing, where many independent factories produce parts such as electrical systems, bumpers and other subsystems to the end manufacturer’s specifications. These parts are then sold to car factories, which eventually assemble cars from outsourced parts.
Because ingredients in processed foods are often mass-produced early in the manufacturing process, any sanitation issues in facilities that produce basic ingredients that are widely used by other factories later in the process can have serious consequences for processed foods. Quality and safety of many final foods.
Despite the hazards, almost everyone eats processed foods these days. As a result, people eat faster and seem less aware of how food is grown and that it is a gift of nature.
Food is also increasingly becoming, in my opinion, a necessary interruption in our busy lives rather than a social occasion to be enjoyed.
eat processed food
You can’t avoid some processed foods…the convenience is irresistible.
When you eat processed foods, you are less likely to get poisoned or contract a foodborne illness. The nutritional value of the foods you eat are likely to be more consistent and you are likely to consume more nutrients and vitamins than if you ate only unprocessed foods.
On the other hand, by eating processed foods, you risk losing heat-sensitive vitamins and nutrients that are removed to improve shelf life, taste, and appearance. You are also exposing yourself to the potential adverse effects on your health of various additives and preservatives, some of which can be serious.
Processed foods are high in sugar and fat and therefore high in calories, which can be very problematic for diabetics as well as those with high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
The only solution is to be extremely careful about the processed foods you buy — read the labels on the packages — and focus your diet on fresh or frozen produce as much as possible.