Processed food, especially ultra-processed foods (UPF) is, for many people, one of the current demons of the food industry. However, according to a new white paper by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), there are significant upsides to food processing, especially when it comes to bolstering food security.
Stemming from the results of a roundtable conducted by the IFT, the white paper aimed to address some of the benefits of food processing. For example, how food processing is vital for the preservation of food, and has the ability to enhance certain nutritional aspects of food, such as nutrient bioavailability. The paper aimed to assuage what it saw has misconceptions about processed food being linked to poor health.
“Food processing is under intense scrutiny in the public health arena and due to confusion with formulation, processing is often viewed as negative for health,” Anna Rosales, Senior Director of Government Affairs and Nutrition for the IFT, told FoodNavigator.
“However, processing of food is essential and can enhance nutrient bioavailability, improve food safety, and make foods more affordable and available. Emerging technologies that use less energy, minimize nutrient loss, and improve consumer acceptability are being developed, but greater investment is needed, particularly for high impact technologies, to bring these technologies to scale.”
Misunderstanding processed food
The white paper grapples with the widespread conception of processed food as bad for health. Processing, it states, is how the food is made, which is different from formulation, which consists of the ingredients which make up a food.
The NOVA classification system, states the white paper, is primarily based on formulation, especially the definition given for group four (ultra-processed foods), rather than the number of steps involved in processing. Furthermore, it differentiates between factory and home processing despite the fact that, according to the IFT’s reports, the processes are similar and only the scale and the equipment used is different.
“The nutritional quality of a food is predominately impacted by the formulation of the food,” Rosales told us. “Think of a recipe in home cooking. The formulation is the same as the ingredients while processing is the equivalent of the instructions. While the process of baking, mixing, roasting, drying, etc., does impact the nutrition of a food, it can both enhance and preserve the nutritional availability of some nutrients, minimising natural losses and at times can reduce some nutrients (like vitamins).”
Rather than focusing exclusively on such formulation, the white paper suggests, we must consider the role of food processing technology in increasing food’s nutritional profile. For example, it can change the food matrix and increase bioavailability. ‘Antinutritional factors,’ such as phytic acid, enzyme inhibitors, phenolic compounds, and saponins, can also be minimised through processing, in turn improving bioavailability.
For example, fermentation can increase bioavailability by simplifying complex proteins. “Traditional fermentation has been demonstrated to increase protein digestibility by degrading complex proteins into simpler peptides and amino acids for digestion and absorption,” Rosales told us.
“It has also been shown to improve starch digestibility by activating starch hydrolyzing enzymes, such as alpha-amylase and maltase. Further, micronutrient bioavailability may be improved through fermentation by improving anti-oxidative attributes and enhancing phytase production that releases free mineral ions.
“Novel protein sources developed through emerging technologies, such as precision fermentation, can also meet emerging demands for more plant-based eating patterns with less demand for animals, energy, and carbon.”
Keeping food safe
Another key benefit of food processing is preserving food to keep it safe for consumption, which the white paper suggests is a major aspect of food security, and always has been, since food processing meant sun drying, roasting, and preserving with salt.
“Food processing has been around since the prehistoric age,” Rosales told us. “These technologies were critical at the time to ensure food was edible, preserved, and safe.
“Today, technologies continue to develop to preserve and enhance the nutritional quality and safety of food while minimizing the impact on the environment. Processing technologies allow us to preserve food, reduce food loss and waste and ensure an affordable, available, accessible, and acceptable food supply. Continued innovation in technologies and processes will be essential to ensure our growing population is well fed for development and longevity.”
Emerging technologies in heating, drying and cooling foods are both food processing and food preservation, the white paper suggests. One example of this is Microwave Assisted Thermal Sterilization and Pasteurization, which the white paper says is a more energy efficient way of preserving food than traditional methods.
“Emerging food preservation technologies are being developed that can use less energy, minimize nutrient loss, and improve taste and texture quality, without compromising food safety,” Rosales told us.
Food processing technology can be used to mitigate hunger in developing countries. For example, rice extrusion can help mitigate hidden hunger, and solar food dehydrators can minimise post-harvest losses.
There are, however, obstacles to the adoption of new technologies. “A challenge to adopting these novel technologies is the substantial research investment that must be committed to concept development, pilot-scale testing, regulatory acceptance, and scale-up and production, which can take several decades and millions of dollars,” Rosales told us.
“Additionally, uptake of new and disruptive technology is often slow due to lack of knowledge, training, and resources, particularly in small businesses and start-ups which are often the early adopters of new technologies. There is also a lack of accurate and transparent data to determine engineering feasibility, economic viability, and sustainability of new technologies.”