Processed Foods: The Pros and Cons – A Balanced View

In food processing, harvested crops or butchered animals are used as the raw ingredients for making and packaging food products that are attractive, marketable and have long-shelf lives.

Attractive means that the product both tastes and looks good. To be marketable, it must match the kinds of food being demanded by consumers. Food products that have a long-shelf life reduce the costs of wastage for producers, distributors and retailers.

Development of food processing

Food processing dates back to our prehistory — when fire was discovered and cooking invented. The various ways in which food can be cooked are all forms of food processing.

Food preservation also began in prehistory, and the first ‘long shelf-life’ foods were produced by drying food in the sun and by preserving food with salt. Preservation with salt was common with soldiers, sailors and other travelers until canning was invented in the early 19th century.

The ancient Bulgarians invented the first instant food (bulgur) nearly 8.000 years ago, when found a way to parboil and dry whole wheat so that the grain only has to be reheated before it can be eaten.

One of the first ready-to-eat meals was devised by the ancient Celts when they invented the haggis and what is now known as the Cornish pasty.

FOODS LIVER

Another processed food, cheese, was invented by the nomads of Arabia when they noticed how milk curdled as they jogged along all day on their camels and ponies.

The prehistoric methods of cooking and preserving food remained largely unchanged until the industrial revolution.

The development of modern food processing technology began in the early 19th century in response to the needs of the military. In 1809 a vacuum bottling technique was invented so Napoleon could feed his troops. Canning was invented in 1810 and, after the makers of the cans stopped using lead (which is highly poisonous) for the inner lining of the tins, canned goods became common throughout the world. Pasteurisation, discovered in 1862, advanced the micro-biological safety of milk and similar products significantly.

Cooling decreases the reproductive rate of bacteria and thus the rate at which food spoils. Cooling as a storage technique has been in use for hundreds of years. Ice-houses, packed with fresh snow during the winter, were used to preserve food by chilling from the mid-18th century onwards and worked fairly well most of the year round in northern climates.

Commercial refrigeration, using toxic refrigerants which made the technology unsafe in the home, was in use for almost four decades before the first domestic refrigerators were introduced in 1915.

Fridges in the home gained wide acceptance in the 1930s when non-toxic and non-flammable refrigerants such as Freon were invented.

The expansion of the food processing industry in the second half of the 20th century was due to three needs:(a) food to feed the troops efficiently during World War II, (b) food that could be consumed under conditions of zero gravity during forays into outer space, and (c) the pursuit of the convenience demanded by the busy consumer society.

To respond to these needs food scientists invented freeze-drying, spray-drying, and juice concentrates among a host of other processing technologies. They also introduced artificial sweeteners, colouring agents and chemical preservatives. In the closing years of the last century they came up with dried instant soups, reconstituted juices and fruits, and the ‘self-cooking’ meals (MREs) so beloved of military brass but not the grunts.

The ‘pursuit of convenience’ has lead to the expansion of frozen foods from simple bags of frozen peas to juice concentrates and complex TV dinners. Those who process food now use the perceived value of time as the foundation of their market appeal.

Benefits of processed foods

Initially, processed foods helped to alleviate food shortages and improve overall nutrition by making new foods available globally. Modern food processing delivers many additional benefits:

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