In the world of food and health, “processing” is often considered a dirty word. Marketers and companies hurl it like a serrated barb, hoping that any product it strikes will be tainted with an aura of unhealthiness. Writers and authors warning of processing’s dangers preach to concerned readers by the thousands Lost in the fracas, however, is any sense of what food processing really is, and why, more often than not, it’s a good thing.
Per the Institute of Food Technologists, food processing is simply “the alteration of foods from the state in which they are harvested or raised to better preserve them and feed consumers.” This could include “washing, grinding, mixing, cooling, storing, heating, freezing, filtering, fermenting, extracting, extruding, centrifuging, frying, drying, concentrating, pressurizing, irradiating, microwaving, and packaging.”
Humans began processing food at least 790,000 years ago. Cooking meat from a hunt burned off bacteria and rendered the animal’s flesh and muscle more easily chewed and digested. It’s likely thanks to this rudimentary form of processing that the human brain grew so large. Processed food is why we’re able to contemplate and debate the dangers of processed food today.
Of course, processed food naysayers would say that they don’t take umbrage with mechanically processed foods. It’s the chemically processed foods that are evil. Food altered in a lab is not “real food.” But this differentiation is over simplistic as well. For example, coconut oil is about as “real” as food comes these days, and it’s 82% saturated fat.
“How natural a food is is completely irrelevant to how healthful it is,” Dr. Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society, opined on a recent episode of Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. “We’re getting people to focus on the wrong thing and I do think it’s highly problematic.”
Stacey Nelson, a registered dietitian and manager of clinical nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, agrees.
“Ignore the marketing claims on the front of the package, flip it over, and go right to the list of ingredients,” she says.
There, along with reading the nutrition facts, you can make an enlightened decision about what to put in your body. Foods high in sugar, saturated fat, and sodium but low in fiber, protein, and minerals you probably should eat less of. Foods in the opposite category, eat more of.
Processing can be a force for both health and unhealth. Processing has given us potato chips, soda, cookies, and all the junk food that litters grocery store aisles. But it also has granted millions of people access to fruits and vegetables, as chemical preservation and freezing permits them to be transported over thousands of miles. Pasteurization means that people no longer get sick from drinking milk. Moreover, adding vitamins and minerals to products like breads and cereals has unquestionably contributed to the health of all.
“If enrichment and fortification were not present, large percentages of the population would have… inadequate intakes of vitamins A, vitamin C, vitamins D, vitamin E, thiamin, folate, calcium, magnesium, and iron,” the American Society for Nutrition recently stated.
Food processing is not inherently good or bad; it is a tool. Looking to the future, food scientists can create starches that resist digestion and thus deliver fewer calories. They can alter the structure of salt to grant the same taste while adding less. They can utilize new technologies like ionizing radiation, high-pressure processing, and pulsed electric field processing to sterilize foods whilst keeping the nutrients intact. They can make use of preservatives and technologies that keep food fresh for longer, thus reducing the 130 billion pounds of food Americans discard every year.
Unfortunately, large food companies have an outsized capacity to decide how to use processing. They are well aware that consumers value taste above all else, and they can readily design foods with an enticing cocktail of salt, fat, and sugar to deliver just that. These so-called “ultra-processed” foods are key contributors to obesity.
Americans shouldn’t demonize processed food and demand less. We should educate ourselves and demand more.
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