Decisions that we make when it comes to food and nutrition can often be very emotional. It’s emotional in the sense that people have strong opinions one way or the other on a given topic when it comes to food choices. And for good reason – food is literally the fuel that keeps us alive. In my practice, many tell me that they avoid processed foods, and avoid giving them to their children. This is one of many topics in nutrition that I challenge you to think more critically about because not all topics are as cut and dry as they seem. And our emotions can keep us from thinking logically on a subject.
I heard Mario Ferruzzi, PhD and food researcher from Purdue University speak about this subject at a food conference recently. He systematically explained food processing in the United States, and it was so informative. I wanted to share it with you here.
What is food processing?
Food processing is a set of methods and techniques used to transform raw commodities and ingredients into finished food products for human consumption. That definition basically tells us that everything we eat is processed. Unless you are picking food right out of the field and putting it in your mouth, you are eating processed foods!
Why do we process foods?
Food Safety. We want food to be safe from high bacteria levels that would cause us to get sick. There are many ways that food is processed in order to make it safe for people. One example is thermal processing like infrared heating, blanching and pasteurization. Thermal processing can degrade heat sensitive vitamins, but it can also help preserve and aid in the bioavailability in others.
Another way is through non-thermal processing like fermentation, freezing or using ultraviolet light In the formulation of products, they might add antibacterial components to the foods to ensure a safe product.
Food Quailty and Shelf-Life.
We want our food to look and taste palatable, and we want those foods to hold their nutritional components. The food industry will add things like flavors, chelators (slows the degradation), buffers (controls the pH) and antioxidants to processed foods to ensure that over time those products will maintain a high quality look, feel and taste.
Foods need to be processed into something that most consumers will actually eat. That means you need to make sure the food looks good and edible. In the case of produce items, the processing begins at harvest. The farmers must harvest the crop and transport it to a plant where it can be properly washed, cut and then packaged for transport. Even organic, free-range meats must be processed for human consumption. You are getting the idea of product conversion here.
The government conducts regular studies on the nutrition status of Americans, and they make nutritional modifications to the food supply in cases where nutrients are chronically low. An example would be the addition of iodine to salt in the 1920’s to address the issues of goiter. Another example is the fortification of iron and folate in flour, bread and ready-to-eat cereals. The addition of nutrients would also be a form of processing.
Salts and sweeteners
Salt is added to food for a variety of reason. One major reason is because salt is a flavor enhancer. Another reason is that it helps preserve a product by lowering the water activity and keep bacteria growth low. Salt also helps maintain elasticity in products such as dough.
Sugar is also a flavor enhancer. But sugar is also widely used as a bulking agent, so if you remove sugar from a product, something else must be put in its place. Sugar also helps control the moisture and structure of a food product.
As you can see, salt and sugar provide more than just flavor enhancers. There are structural and antibacterial functions as well. But either way, eating too many foods with added salts and sweeteners can negatively impact your health.
Many products use added fats to increase not only flavor, but also shelf life. Partially hydrogenated fats, or trans fats, are often used to processed foods to increase their ability to sit in your pantry without molding. Trans fats have been shown to increase cholesterol and contribute to heart disease. We certainly want to minimize foods with added fats, particularly trans fats.
There are varying levels to processing of foods. Here it is broken down:
LEVEL ONE/MINIMALLY PROCESSED FOODS
Minimally processed foods – like bagged spinach, cut vegetables and roasted nuts -- are often simply pre-prepped for convenience.
LEVEL TWO PROCESSING
Foods processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness include canned beans, tomatoes, frozen fruit and vegetables, and canned tuna.
LEVEL THREE PROCESSING
Foods with ingredients added for flavor and texture (sweeteners, spices, oils, colors and preservatives) include jarred pasta sauce, salad dressing, yogurt and cake mixes.
LEVEL FOUR PROCESSING
Ready-to-eat foods, like crackers, granola, and deli meats.
LEVEL FIVE PROCESSING/MOST PROCESSED
The most heavily processed foods often are frozen or pre-made meals like frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners.
The Bottom Line
You cannot say that all food processing is bad because everything we eat is “processed” in some form or another. We do want to encourage the consumption of foods in their most wholesome form when possible. On the level scheme provided above, eat mostly from the lowered numbered levels and choose foods without added salts and sugars.