In Defense of Processed Food

SandwhichHas some friend or some article ever told you to avoid processed foods?  Well, guess what. That would be almost impossible to do because most foods have been at least minimally processed before we purchase them or after we handle them at home. Even a cut-up watermelon is considered processed, but how often do you need or want to carry home a whole watermelon? 


Food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter explains that, from the point of view of the USDA and FDA, “processed food” is any food that has been altered from its original form. She points out the following: “If you peel or cut an apple, you’ve processed it, although only minimally.  If you bake it or turn it into applesauce, you’ve processed it even more.  Bagged lettuce is also processed, and so is pasteurized milk.”


Heating, freezing, and mixing a food with another food are also forms of processing.  What can be done to edibles that the government would not consider processing? Food scientist Dr. Karin Allen mentions these actions: brushing dirt off potatoes or pulling dead or dying leaves off a head of lettuce.  Believe it or not, even polishing an apple with a cloth is a borderline action that might be considered “processing.” 


Processing by adding something to the food is often a way to make the food safer to consume or to improve its quality.  Dr. Cutter explains that added salt or sugar binds up the water in a food and keeps the water from being available to bacteria.  Many compounds are added for the purpose of extending shelf life, improving color stability, keeping mold from growing on the product, and for other benefits.  Customers want a long shelf life, healthful food, and good quality, so they would be unhappy with their purchases if all additives were dispensed with. 


When consumers say that they are trying to avoid processed foods, they are usually referring to more extreme forms of processing.   These days, the word “processed” has negative connotations just as “natural” has positive ones.  But, when it comes to avoiding illness, processed food can be defended. Dr. Allen says, “There is more risk of contamination from minimally processed food than from processed or highly processed food.  Highly processed food presents more obstacles to bacteria. In terms of long-term health, we don’t have a handle on that [for example, the possible risks of injury from additives]. Animal studies allow us to be reasonably sure that the additives being used today won’t cause long-term health problems.   But people who are sensitive to a particular chemical might want to stick to minimally processed foods.” 


Still, the public continues to worry and question.  One example that often gets attention from the news media: the use of color additives to make food more attractive, especially to children.  For years, parents have been insisting that there is a link between color additives and hyperactivity in children. Some parents of hyperactive children say that their children’s behavior is worsened by color additives and improves dramatically when these are removed from their diet. A growing number of scientific studies have supported this belief.  For years, the FDA denied that there was a connection between these dyes and children’s behavior, however, in 2011, the FDA asked a panel of experts to review the evidence and make recommendations about possible policy changes.  This review could lead to a requirement of warning labels on Jell-0, Lucky Charms, Minute Maid Lemonade, and other products.  It’s unlikely to lead to a ban on the use of color additives, as some parents have been advocating.


Past government crackdowns on some color additives were the result of the dyes being found to be toxic, carcinogenic, or contaminated due to filth. Color additives are just one type of additive that has given processed foods a bad name and encouraged consumers to look for the “natural” label.  Highly processed foods are also commonly blamed for our nation’s obesity epidemic because of excessive amounts of salt, sugar, and fat added to prepared dishes sold in supermarkets and restaurants. 


Although processed food can be defended, it’s also true that the more a food is handled before it enters your home, the greater the chance of contamination.  If foods are heated to 165°F, most pathogens will be killed anyway.  But cut-up produce that will be eaten raw is a greater risk than a whole piece of fruit or a whole vegetable. Food scientists I’ve questioned say that a head of lettuce (with the outer leaves removed) is less risky than bagged, cut-up lettuce, although the latter has been treated to kill pathogens.


My final defense of processed food is the time-saving benefit.  I confess to regularly purchasing ready-made soups, mashed potatoes, and macaroni-and-cheese.  And considering how many such products are on display in supermarkets, I’m not the only one buying them. 


All things considered, should you be eating only minimally-processed food? Dr. Allen recommends moderation, eating a variety of foods, some processed and some unprocessed.  What comes straight from your garden to your table is great, but an occasional fast food sandwich won’t cut years off your life.   




Karin E. Allen, Ph.D., Utah State University, Dept. of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences  


Catherine N. Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science  “Fresh,” “Natural,” “Processed”—What Do These Words Mean?“fresh”-“natural”-“processed”—what-do-these-words-mean “Fact Sheets--Production and Inspection FSIS Food Recalls: Who regulates food products?”


The New York Times,   Money and Policy section “F.D.A. Panel to Consider Warnings for Artificial Foods Colorings” March 29, 2011




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