What Does “Food Processing” Mean?

My post, The Salty Truth, got a lot of responses when it was put up on Fooducate (under the title, “Table Salt vs. Sea Salt: The Truth”).  A theme that ran through some of these responses was the evil of food processing.  For example, one person said, “My personal food philosophy is that natural is ALWAYS better than processed foods in any degree or manner,” and then slammed table salt because it was processed to meet consumer demand for a white, same-size crystal, easily flowing product.

Like other writers about food (see Bettina Elias Siegel’s post on this topic), I feel uneasy about the the terms, “natural” and “processed.”  It’s easy to identify a cauliflower at the farmer’s market as “natural” and the Vegetable Thin crackers that I described in The Salty Truth as “processed” because the latter contains ingredients that have nothing to do with nutrition and everything to do with appealing to consumers, preserving shelf life, and lowering the cost of production.

But what about a homemade cake?  Aren’t we processing a product when we cook it?  Certainly, a cake is more than the sum of its ingredients—it doesn’t taste like baking powder, flour, or sugar straight out of the box or bag.  Rather, during mixing and baking, the original ingredients have been transformed into a new product. 

Moreover, the ingredients we’ve used in the cake are already processed: flour is milled, baking powder is made from sodium bicarbonate which is mined or created artificially, and sugar has to be extracted from canes or beets.

How should we describe the cake we have made?  Is it “natural” or is it “processed?” Is it “good” or is it “bad?”

When Food Processing is Good

Many people, like the responder above who espouses only “natural” food, are rejecting the industrialization of food and the many benefits that have arisen from it.

According to historian Rachel Lauden in her Utne Magazine article (2010) “In Praise of Fast Food,” if we were to revert to a pre-industrial life in which we grew or hunted for everything we ate, we would soon discover that we’d been seeing “natural” through rose-coloured glasses:

For our ancestors, natural was something quite nasty. Natural often tasted bad. Fresh meat was rank and tough, fresh fruits inedibly sour, fresh vegetables bitter. Natural was unreliable. Fresh milk soured; eggs went rotten…Grains, which supplied 50 to 90 percent of the calories in most societies, have to be threshed, ground, and cooked to make them edible…

The industrialization of food processing not only helped make food more edible and enabled better preservation, it also brought us freedoms not enjoyed by our forebears.

Think about it.  We don’t have to spend our every minute in the kitchen threshing, grinding, churning, skinning, salting, smoking, drying, baking, boiling, chopping…you name it.  Instead, we go to grocery stores and farmers’ markets, buy from a huge variety of foods both local and global, and have the ability to focus on other things besides basic sustenance.

But rather than enjoying our good fortune, we are apprehensive about food and highly susceptible to words such as “natural, “pure,” “healthy,” and “processed.”  Why?  Because they are culturally “loaded.”  

For example, did you really buy a bottled salad dressing (processed = bad) when you could have made your own with cold-pressed olive oil, vinegar in which you’ve steeped various herbs, and sea salt which you grind yourself (natural = good)? 

Ouch!

Clearly, the terms that we are using when we describe food are not only vague (remember the cake), but they’re also causing us confusion, conflict, guilt, and stress.  I think we need some clarity around the issue of food processing, and a recent article in World Nutrition (2011) provides some help.

New Food Definitions

In “The Big Issue is Ultra-processing. There is No Such Thing as a Healthy Ultra-Processed Product,” Dr. Carlos Monteiro makes a distinction among three types of food:

The first type is fresh food, such as the cauliflower at the farmer’s market.  Fresh food is generally rich in nutrients and low in calories, and we can accurately call this type of food “natural.”

The second type is minimally processed food, such as a cake’s basic ingredients—salt, sugar, and flour.  We can’t call these foods “natural,” because they have undergone a certain amount of processing to meet our demands.  On the other hand, the processing is not harmful because it doesn’t change the basic nature of these foods. 

Whether a salt is processed mechanically with trace elements removed and iodine added or by hand with trace elements intact, it remains salt—a product we use to enhance the flavor of other foods.

More importantly, minimally processed foods, whether unrefined (whole wheat flour) or refined (white flour) do not threaten our health when eaten in appropriate, moderate, and reasonable amounts for our individual bodies.  This last condition is important.  Each of us has different tolerances and react differently to foods.  However, generally speaking, eating any food in excess is likely to be harmful to health, no matter what it is.

The third type is ultra-processed food. Monteiro describes these as “ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat ‘fast’ dishes, snacks and drink.” He says that they are made from “cheap or degraded ingredients,” and are low in nutrients, high in calories, and full of fat, sugar, and/or salt.  

Ultra-processed foods, then, are artificial foods, created through chemical additives and the additional processing of fresh and minimally processed foods.  Manufacturers of these foods have distorted healthful ingredients to the point that they no longer have healthy benefits. 

In fact, Monteiro counters any health claims made by manufacturers for ultra-processed food: “Manipulation of the formulation to reduce any of their ingredients, or to add synthetic nutrients, does not change their basic nature.” 

These are the processed foods that are bad for us individually and globally, healthwise and socially. Monteiro says that they contribute to obesity and thus health problems, undermine traditional food systems, and undercut regional and national food identities.

What Can We Do?

Those of us who talk or write about food in the public arena are already fighting a battle against ultra-processed food.  Writers such as Michael Pollan have set the stage for a new way of thinking about our food.  Web sites like Fooducate look carefully beyond the claims on products to the real ingredients.  I and my fellow food bloggers post recipes that generally use only fresh and minimally processed food.

But all of us who care about food and our agricultural system need to avoid the trap laid for us by the manufacturers of ultra-processed food who throw around buzzwords such as “natural” and “processed” with abandon and muddy the waters.  

We should strive to be clear and accurate when we think, talk, and write about food.  Using Monteiro’s food types can be one way of doing this.  I, for one, now intend to use the words “minimally processed” and “ultra-processed” instead of just “processed.”

If all of us do this, we can help focus our grassroots resources of time, energy, and dialogue on the really important food goals in our world—changing our food system so that it provides good nutrition for everyone and supports healthy, sustainable, and diverse agriculture.

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