Recently I did some filming for a new one off television documentary (will share more details when I’ve been given the nod to talk about it) all about ‘processed foods’.
The topic of processed foods is such a controversial one, and one that often stirs up a lot of emotions in people and so I knew that I wanted to approach it from a very balanced point of view.
In the UK we are a “ready meal nation” with nearly half of all ready meals created in Europe being consumed in the UK. However, processed foods and ready meals get a lot of negative press, which, whilst often justified and based on evidence that high intakes of processed foods are not great, can also be exaggerated and miss important points about the benefits of processed foods to our life/health too.
Before you stop reading, scream at the screen or decide to banish me to the list of “industry shrills”, I’m going to explain why and write about the side of processed foods that we rarely get to hear about.
The benefits of processed food
In a world where we have thousands of mouths to feed every single day, the processing of food is not only helpful, but in some cases it is essential. Almost all foods are processed in some way before they are consumed – think chopping, freezing, blending, cooking. But what counts as “processed food” is really variable and often depends hugely on an individual’s own ideas of what processed means.
For example, many people don’t think of frozen vegetables, free-from foods, honey or even energy balls as being ‘processed’, but some of these go through multiple processing methods before they are ready to eat.
Without processed foods, we would never have the huge variety of foods that we have available to us today. We can visit the supermarket and have our pick of a huge array of different foods from nuts to beans and pulses to plant-based proteins such as Quorn and tofu as well as huge variety in crisps, breakfast cereals and jams. In some ways this HUGE choice can be concerning, but it has to be said that we are very lucky to have such a variety available to us every single day.
Importantly, processing also makes our food safe to eat. For example, when milk is pasteurised, this is done simply to destroy any harmful bacteria that may be lurking in the raw product. Pasteurising ensures that any bacteria isn’t allowed to grow, contaminate milk for sale and potentially make consumers unwell. Additionally, raw kidney beans contain an inedible protein that needs to be removed before they are safe to consume. Heating the beans helps to ensure they are edible and safe for consumption.
“Never before have we had such an abundance of safe, and healthy food available to us around the world.” (Anon)
And, now comes the most controversial one of all…
Food processing helps us to consume more healthy food options:
Yes. I said it. Processed foods can actually encourage us to consume more variety and a variety of healthier options too. For example freezing fruits and vegetables can help encourage many more people to consume the recommended 5 A Day. Frozen fruits and vegetables are a very quick and healthy option to add to dinners, soups, cereals and smoothies and the freezing process actually helps to lock in nutrients that may otherwise be lost in fresh fruit and veg.
On top of this, many foods are often fortified with nutrients during processing. For example plant-based milks are often low in calcium, B-vitamins and iodine but many manufacturers choose to voluntarily fortify their milks with these vitamins and minerals to help make them more nutritionally comparable to cow’s milk. Without this fortification, those choosing plant-milks for allergy, cultural or welfare reasons may be at risk of having low intakes in some of the nutrients present in cow’s milk.
Additionally the fortification of white and brown (not wholemeal) flour with iron, thiamine and niacin is enforced by law in the UK, and this helps to ensure that these breads offer nutrients that may be removed during their processing.
Last but not least, processing foods helps our foods to be much more palatable…which leads me on nicely to talk more about the negatives of processed foods which will be what I post about in next week’s blog.
Processed foods can be of benefit to many people, helping to provide safe, healthy food to vast numbers in the population. Different processes help to preserve foods and lock nutrients in as well as add extra vitamins and minerals. Of course processed foods do often have higher amounts of salt, sugar, saturated fats and lower levels of fibre and micronutrients and we will cover more on this in Processed Foods: The pros and cons 2.