Why do we process food?

In Step 1.6, we asked if you thought these apples were processed.

woman holding a board containing apples, some chopped in half

Image by Monika Grabkowska/ unsplash.com

Do you think of fresh fruit - the sort you can find at a farmer’s market - as processed? We don’t tend to think about it, but even a simple apple often undergoes a washing, and sometimes a waxing, operation before it gets to the market or supermarket. Even your own vegetables from the garden are probably processed (for example, washed, cut, fried or heated) before you can enjoy them. Almost all food is processed in some way before it is eaten.

Processing makes food more edible, palatable and safe, and preserves it so it can be eaten beyond the harvest season. Food processing is also a tool that offers greater variety in foods and therefore increases the consumer’s choice. Think about the salad you might buy for lunch and the variety of components it contains.

To meet consumers’ expectations, the food industry needs to produce foods that are safe, tasty, nutritious, available in variety and affordable.

These expectations lead to a diverse range of reasons for processing foods:

  • The main, and probably the primary, reason is to increase the shelf life of the product and thereby ensure food safety. Various processes (for example heating, drying, canning, freezing, etc) inactivate the microorganisms responsible for food spoilage and/or foodborne diseases, or inhibit their growth.

  • Durable products are also available all year round regardless of their seasonality which, in turn, leads to reduced post-harvest loss. Surplus fresh produce can also be made into other food products using different processing technologies.

  • Another key reason is to maintain the quality and stability of a product. Fresh juice, for example, will easily phase-separate after extraction and enzymes start to degrade valuable components such as antioxidants. If these enzymes are inactivated by pasteurising (heat-treating) the juice, spoilage can be slowed down. This also applies to products which include a large amount of fat, as they easily become rancid when enzymes are still active and oxygen is present.

  • Processing also make some foodstuffs more digestible by softening tissue or breaking it down.

  • Processing increases the variety of food products available to the consumer and makes them more convenient, meeting the demands of our on-the-go lifestyle.

  • Lastly, food processing plays an important role in ensuring food is affordable.

Activity

You can probably think of more reasons to process food than are listed here. Add your ideas in the comments section and provide examples of products that illustrate them.

If you’d like to find out more about the purpose and advantages of processing food, check out the ‘See Also’ links at the bottom of this Article. Both contain lists of common processing techniques. The list in the second article, section 4, is particularly comprehensive.

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This article is from the free online course:

How is Food Made? Understanding Processed Food

EIT Food