The benefits and drawbacks of food processing
Before we start this week’s journey, let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of food processing.
Infographic showing 11 advantages of food processing. © EUFIC Source
Let’s look at some of these in more detail (words and phrases in bold are defined in the Glossary at the end of the Step):
Increasing availability and convenience
Food processing allows us to eat a greater variety of foods than our ancestors. Because we can safely preserve and package foods, we are able to transport foods from across the globe to our homes. We are not restricted to what is produced locally nor to seasonality, greatly extending food availability and accessibility for the great majority that live in urban environments. Increased choice allows us to have a more varied diet, which is more likely to provide all the nutrients required for good health.
Because food science allows us to understand how and why foods lose quality during storage, we can select conditions that greatly extend storage times while maintaining freshness. Apples are typically harvested over a two- or three-month period yet are available year-round. This is because once apples are harvested, they can be rapidly transferred into controlled atmosphere storage which slows their respiration, and hence ripening, to allow them to be kept for up to 12 months until ready for use.
However, these advances are not without their drawbacks. We are now routinely transporting foods over many miles, often by air, which contributes to the environmental impact of food production and to climate change. And the lack of seasonal differences in the availability of produce means that consumers forget which foods can be grown at which times of the year, expect them all year round and are not prepared to pay extra for the additional energy and resources required to produce them out of season.
Ensuring food safety
Having safe food to eat is something we take for granted. We have use-by dates on perishable foods that show us how long it is safe to eat, and labelled storage guidance to help us keep our food correctly. Food processing operations, like pasteurisation of milk, canning or freeze-drying, will have been used to help make the food safe.
A disadvantage of this tightly regulated labeling system though, is that supermarkets must dispose of products that have exceeded their sell-by dates. This results in wasting large amounts of food that is still safe. This problem is being addressed by charities and by some governments - France has become the first country to prohibit supermarkets from throwing away unsold food, enabling them to donate it to charities instead.
Personalised nutrition and health
We are increasingly aware of how the foods we eat impact our health, and that our individual nutritional needs may differ from those of others. We can choose to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, or we may have a food allergy or food-related condition (for example, coeliac disease). Modern food processing has made it possible to tailor foods to specific needs and give us more control over our own health.
This does, however, create an environment where we are inundated with health claims and counter claims about particular foods. It is often difficult to work out which foods we can trust.
Preserving nutritional quality
Modern preservation methods maintain not only the quality of food, but also its nutritional properties. Some vitamins, for example, easily lose their nutritional value during storage, particularly due to oxidation. Preservation and packaging techniques stabilise these important nutrients. We can also use safe food additives to prevent oxidation.
On the other hand, nutrients are sometimes lost during processing and subsequent storage. Depending on the extent and type of processing, essential nutrients can degrade. And although plastic packaging has revolutionised our ability to keep food fresh for minimal added weight (which is important when it comes to the energy needed to transport it), there are significant environmental costs associated with producing and disposing of plastic.
Fortification and enrichment
We fortify and enrich foods to add micronutrients, like trace minerals and vitamins. The main aim is to address dietary deficiencies, but the processes can also be used to replace nutrients that could have been lost during previous processing steps. We also use fortification to ensure that substitute foods (eg low fat spreads substituted for butter) are nutritionally equivalent. Foods produced for vegans and vegetarians are often fortified with vitamin B12 which isn’t found in plants, and soya drinks may be fortified with calcium for those who don’t consume dairy products.
In the next Step, we’ll be asking for your views on whether the positives of food processing outweigh the negatives.
controlled atmosphere storage
A storage room where the concentrations of oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen, as well as the temperature and the humidity are regulated to maintain the quality and safety of food products.
Use-by dates concern food safety. Foods are safe to be eaten until the use-by date but not after. For the use-by date to be valid, the food needs to be stored according instructions. However, many foods can be frozen before the use-by date, such as meat or milk. Best-before dates, on the other hand, concern food quality, not safety. The food continues to be safe to eat after the date, but qualities such as the flavour and texture may diminish. Best-before dates are common on frozen and canned products. They must also be stored in an appropriate way for the best-before date to be valid.
© EIT Food