Not all processed foods are bad

At present there is a global distrust of processed foods and by association also of the Food Processing Industry. Many people, particularly those in more affluent societies, are attempting to turn back the clock of human development to return to a more "primitive" and more "natural" state. In similar fashion to the veneration of a "primitive society" in the 18th century, modern man hankers after a simpler, more basic life and food supply.

The idea that by rejecting all forms of food processing, we will return to a healthier or more nutritious diet, has become popular with many individuals who have dedicated themselves to eating raw or fruitarian or vegan or macrobiotic diets.

Is food processing really bad?

The unfortunate consequence of these dietary trends, is that adherents of "pure" diets are lumping all types of food processing together as "bad" and "unhealthy". In all fairness to the science of Food Technology which humans have been practising since the first caveman roasted a haunch of mammoth over a fire, or allowed some mare’s milk or a porridge to ferment, it is important to differentiate between non-advantageous food processing and advantageous food processing.

By advantageous food processing I mean those actions that are carried out which improve our food supply or help to preserve it or make nutrients more easily available to humans or generally contribute to improved nutrition and the good health of the nation.

By non-advantageous food processing I mean those actions which are carried out to make foods with a poor nutritive composition more appealing to buyers, for example turning sugar into a frothy confection such as spun sugar which serves no nutritive purpose, or puffing up grains like maize to form caterpillar-like snacks that are drenched in artificial colourants and flavourants which usually have a very high sodium content, and hardly any nutritive value.

If we, therefore, differentiate between advantageous and non-advantageous food processing then it is evident that there is a world of difference between them and that most types of food processing are not bad at all, but can be extremely advantageous for the survival of the human race.

Let’s imagine...

If we give free reign to our imaginations and imagine a world without food processing, then the following potential advantages and disadvantages come to mind:

a) Potential advantages

  • Absence of "junk" food
  • Improved health due to a reduction in obesity and associated diseases such as heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cancer, gout, etc.
  • A much smaller global population with a greatly reduced demand for food
  • Less fertiliser, pesticide, and herbicide pollution 

While these advantages create an even greater longing for a return to the simple life and simple food without the intervention of food processing, let’s look at the disadvantages of a life without food processing.

b) Potential disadvantages

  • A much reduced food supply, both in quantity, quality and safety
  • An increase in infectious diseases
  • Very pronounced food losses due to spoilage and infestations
  • Monotonous diets lacking in variety
  • Inability to extract the full nutritional potential from unprocessed foods leading to deficiency diseases
  • Famine

This type of comparison shows that food processing has become part and parcel of our world and that there is no way that we would be able to sustain our global population of 7 billion people without relying heavily on this science.

The modern misconception

According to John Ruff, President of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) in the USA (visit: ), “Processed foods have become synonymous with poor nutrition, which just isn’t true.” In an address delivered in September of this year, Ruff revealed that an International Food Information Council study found that 48% of consumers rated processed foods as “unfavourable” and only 18% gave processed food a “favourable” mark.

In addition, those consumers who regarded themselves as knowledgeable about food and nutrition, had the most negative attitude towards processed foods. However, despite the bad mouthing that processed foods receive from the public, only 1% of surveyed individuals actually avoid processed foods, which is ironic when up to 51% of the consumers in this study actively avoided carbohydrates and sugars.

If this negative approach to foods that have been processed in any way at all, continues to gain ground, we may reach a point where everyone in the word will be affected and we will not be able to feed our global population any more. To illustrate the far-reaching consequences of the anti-food-processing approach, the IFT have produced a video on “Feeding the World Today and Tomorrow: The Importance of Food Science and Technology.” (IFT, 2012)

The video is scary, depicting a nightmare scenario with empty supermarket shelves and starving children lining up at soup kitchens, rotting food and rats frolicking in grain bins. (Watch the video below)

The balanced approach

A balanced approach is vital. On the one hand, food manufacturers must be responsible and expend their efforts to improving our food supply, while on the other hand, we as consumers need to be realistic and stop slating a profession that puts the food on our plates.

During the years when I worked at the Food Research Institute of the CSIR, I as a nutritionist and dietitian learned to honour my colleagues the food technologists who spent their time solving problems of food safety, preservation and sustainability.  It’s time that the public also take a more balanced view of food science and technology and realise that food processing is not the enemy .

- (Dr IV van Heerden, DietDoc, first published on 15 October 2012)

(Pic of woman eating bread from Shutterstock)

(IFT (2012); and

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