One of the most controversial practices in nowadays’ food industry, food processing is surrounded by misconceptions. In this article, you will discover the difference between the commonly accepted and the actual definition of food processing, and some facts about the most important methods of obtaining processed foods.

Food Processing Specifics

Food processing is the conversion of ingredients or foods into other more marketable forms that can be prepared and served by consumers. There are many techniques involved in processing foods; While some of them date back to prehistoric ages, others make use of modern technology to improve texture and taste or increase shelf life.

The food processing industry almost perfectly overlaps with the food industry; Processing techniques are encountered in a majority of foods on the market nowadays. While some are harmless or even beneficial to our health, others use substances that can have damaging short or long-term effects.

food processing techniques for cheese production

Food Processing Methods

There are three main types of food processing: thermal, mechanical, and chemical.

The first one is pretty self-explanatory: it refers to freezing or cooking by baking, boiling, broiling, grilling, steaming, pasteurizing, or frying. Despite this, industrially cooking an item is slightly different than home cooking it and can sometimes involve more artificial additives which enhance taste and texture, but can lead to a less healthy lifestyle.

Mechanical food processing refers to a series of techniques that make ingredients or foods easier to cook with or consume and involve:

  • Chopping, mincing, dicing, or slicing;
  • Removing the skin or outer layer;
  • Mixing solid ingredients.

By definition, mechanical processing of foods does not make use of chemical or natural additives – even though fruits and vegetables are washed beforehand.

mechanical food processing as the first stage of creating frozen fruit salad

Chemical food processing, however, does. The most complex method of producing processed foods includes:

  • Macerating;
  • Liquefying;
  • Emulsifying;
  • Pickling;
  • Removing or adding fat, sugar, and other components;
  • Adding preservatives;
  • Adding other enhancers.

There are multiple practices for chemically processing ingredients or foods. Some of them are thousands of years old, implemented in home cooking or food processing, and considered safe: Macerating, pickling, or using salt to preserve foods for a longer time are just a few of them.

Even though artificially obtained, some additives can be found in all-natural, organic fruits and vegetables. Others, though, can have harmful effects on our stomach, liver, pancreas, brain, and other organs.

Here is a list of chemicals that make up an all-natural banana to put things in perspective for you:

ingredients in an all-natural banana

Image source.

Note: A banana does not contain 48% glucose, but 48% of the sugars are glucose, and so on.

Many of these ingredients might sound artificial out of context, especially the E460 fiber; Yet here they are in an organic product that is the result of nature, and nature alone. However, to reduce expenses and increase profit, food processing companies make use of artificial additives like preservatives, colorants, or flavor enhancers. While some are harmless, others have been proven as unhealthy.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Food Processing

Mechanical food processing makes ingredients and foods more accessible and easier to cook (with), but can also affect their chemical composition. For example, vitamin C is destroyed by light, heat, and oxygen; Therefore, mechanically processing fruits or vegetables decreases the amount of vitamin C by exposing every slice or piece to air and light.

But an item’s processing rarely stops after mechanical alteration. In fact, all of the food processing techniques are alternated and combined to achieve the desired result with the lowest costs possible. Chemical food processing benefits for consumers include:

  • Toxin removal;
  • Increased shelf life;
  • Availability all throughout the year;
  • Availability all over the globe;
  • Decreased incidence of food-borne diseases;
  • Reduced meal preparation time;
  • Reduced number of allergens in foods.

shelves of processed foods in supermarket

Chemical processing can also affect taste, texture, and nutritional stats of an ingredient or food. Conservation, fat, or sugar removal through chemical processing lead to vapid products. A common practice among food processing companies is to replace fat with sugars or artificial sweeteners in products to be marketed under a “low-fat” label at higher prices, to offer them a taste boost. This controversial practice is considered harmful for consumers since sugars are said to be more harmful than fats. In addition, certain artificial sweeteners are not recommended for long-term consumption.

Effects of food additives like artificial sweeteners, preservatives, or stabilizers are still being discovered as years go by. Some have been proven as carcinogens, while others are considered safe if consumed within specified levels.

There is also a series of environmental concerns surrounding the food processing industry, too. Large quantities of water and fuel are needed to produce processed foods, but it doesn’t stop here. Air, water, and soil pollution are the disturbing consequences of having our dinner cooked in 30 minutes or less.

Processed Foods to Avoid

Seeking a non-processed food diet is more and more common nowadays. If we stick to the literal definition of processed foods, buying pasteurized milk or low-fat cream means dealing with food that has been processed one way or the other. Moreover, chopping ingredients with a knife or a food processor means mechanically processing them – which, let’s be honest, is necessary and cannot be harmful.
processed foods to avoid

Be that as it may, the largely accepted definition of food processing only refers to a small fraction of chemical alterations, like additives. While some of them can be harmful to our health and wellbeing, additives represent a small fraction of the whole food processing techniques that could have negative effects on our health.

Low-fat dairy products are generally harmful. Sugar, sweeteners, or taste enhancers can be more harmful and a more important weight gain factor than fat itself. Snacks, chips, and fast food meals should also be avoided if you want to follow a no processed food diet, as well as sugary and carbonated drinks or granola bars. Items with extended shelf life intervals when compared to others in the same category should also be avoided since this usually is a hint to a high amount of preservatives. Frozen processed products like pizzas, pastries, or other oven-ready foods are considered the most harmful.

We hope this clears up your questions or misconceptions about food processing. Now that you know what to actually stay away from and what is not as dangerous as many put it, new opportunities for eating healthy should emerge for you and your family.

Image sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.