Processed Foods: The Pros and Cons – A Balanced View

In food processing, harvested crops or slaughtered animals are used as raw materials for the manufacture and packaging of attractive, marketable and durable foods.

Attractive means that the product tastes good as well as looks good. In order to be marketable, it must match the foods consumers are asking for. Foods with a long shelf life reduce waste costs for manufacturers, distributors and retailers.

development of food processing

Food processing dates back to prehistory – when fire was discovered and cooking was invented. The different ways food can be cooked are all forms of food processing.

Food preservation also began in prehistory, and the first “long shelf life” foods were made by drying food in the sun and preserving food with salt. Salt preservation was common among soldiers, sailors, and other travelers until the invention of canning in the early 19th century.

The ancient Bulgarians invented the first ready meal (bulgur) almost 8,000 years ago when they found a way to pre-cook and dry whole grain wheat so that the grain only needs to be warmed up before it can be eaten.

One of the first ready meals was invented by the ancient Celts when they invented haggis and what is now known as Cornish Pasty.

Another processed food, cheese, was invented by the nomads of Arabia when they noticed how milk curdles while jogging on their camels and ponies all day.

Prehistoric cooking and preservation methods 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 can makers stopped using lead (which is highly toxic) for the inner lining of cans, canning became widespread around the world. Pasteurization, discovered in 1862, greatly improved the microbiological safety of milk and similar products.

Refrigeration reduces the proliferation rate of bacteria and thus food spoilage. Cooling as a storage technique has been in use for hundreds of years. Ice houses, filled with fresh snow in winter, were used to preserve food by refrigeration from the mid-18th century and functioned reasonably well in northern climates for most of the year.

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

Domestic refrigerators gained widespread 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 driven by three needs: (a) food to efficiently feed troops during World War II, (b) food to be consumed during forays in microgravity conditions was able to go to outer space and (c) the pursuit of convenience demanded by the busy consumer society.

To meet these needs, food scientists invented freeze drying, spray drying, and juice concentrates, among a variety of other processing technologies. They also introduced artificial sweeteners, colors and chemical preservatives. In the latter years of the last century, they marketed instant dried soups, reconstituted juices and fruits, and the “self-cooking” meals (MREs) so loved by the military but not by the grunts.

The ‘quest for convenience’ has seen frozen foods expand from simple bags of frozen peas to juice concentrates and complex TV dinners. Food processors today use the perceived value of time as the basis of their market appeal.

Benefits of Processed Foods

Initially, processed foods helped alleviate food shortages and improve overall nutrition by making new foods available worldwide. Modern food processing offers many additional advantages:

  • By inactivating the pathogenic microorganisms found in fresh vegetables and raw meat (e.g. Salmonella), food-borne diseases are reduced and food is safer.
  • Because processed foods are less prone to spoilage than fresh foods, modern processing, storage and transportation can provide a wide variety of foods from around the world, giving us a choice in our supermarkets that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors.
  • Processing can often improve the taste of food, but it can also have the opposite effect.
  • The nutritional value of food can be increased by adding additional nutrients and vitamins during processing.
  • The nutritional value can also be made more consistent and reliable.
  • Modern processing technologies can also improve the quality of life for allergy sufferers by removing the proteins that cause allergic reactions.
  • The mass production of food means that processed food is much cheaper to produce than the cost of preparing meals at home from raw ingredients.

Processed foods are also extremely convenient. Households are freed from the time-consuming task of preparing and cooking all-natural foods… The food industry makes everything from peeled potatoes for cooking to ready-made meals that only need to be heated in the microwave oven for a few minutes.


Processed foods are undoubtedly a great boon. But not everything is sweet and easy.

In general, fresh, unprocessed foods contain higher levels of naturally occurring fiber, vitamins and minerals than the same foods after processing by the food industry. For example, vitamin C is destroyed by heat and therefore fresh fruit contains more vitamin C than canned fruit.

In fact, nutrients are often intentionally removed from foods during processing to improve taste, appearance, or shelf life. Examples are bread, pasta and ready meals.

The result is empty calories. Processed foods have a higher calorie to other essential nutrient ratio than fresh, unprocessed foods. They are often high in energy while being nutritionally poor.

Processing can pose dangers not found in unprocessed foods due to additives, preservatives, chemically hydrogenated vegetable oils or trans fats, and excess sugar and salt. In fact, the additives in processed foods…flavors, sweeteners, stabilizers, texture enhancers, and preservatives, among others…can have little or no nutritional value, or even be unhealthy.

Preservatives that are used to extend shelf life, such as nitrites or sulphites, can lead to health problems. In fact, adding many chemicals to flavor and preserve has been shown to cause human and animal cells to grow rapidly without dying, increasing the risk of a variety of cancers.

Cheap ingredients that mimic the properties of natural ingredients, such as trans fats made from chemically hardened vegetable oils replacing more expensive natural saturated fats or cold-pressed oils, have been shown in numerous studies to cause serious health problems. However, due to their low cost and consumer ignorance, they are still widely used.

Sugars, fats and salts are usually added to processed foods to improve flavor and as preservatives. As diabetics, we are all aware of the effects of excess sugar, fat and fat on our already damaged systems. Eating large amounts of processed foods means you’re consuming too much sugar, fats and salts, which even when you’re in good health can lead to a variety of problems, like high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, ulcers, stomach cancer, obesity, and of course Diabetes.

Another problem with processed foods is that inferior ingredients can be disguised during manufacture.

In the processing industry, a food product goes through several intermediate steps in independent factories before it is finished in the factory that finishes it.

This is similar to the use of subcontractors in automotive manufacturing, where many independent factories produce parts such as electrical systems, bumpers, and other subsystems to final manufacturer specifications. These parts are then sold to the car factory, where the car is finally assembled from the purchased parts.

Because the ingredients in processed foods are often manufactured in large quantities in the early stages of the manufacturing process, any sanitation issues in the facilities that produce a basic ingredient that is used on a large scale by other factories in the later stages of production can have a serious impact on the Quality and safety of many food end products.

Despite the dangers, everyone nowadays eats almost exclusively processed foods. As a result, people are eating faster and seem unaware of how food is grown and how it is a gift from nature.

It also seems to me that in our busy lives, eating has become more of a necessary interruption and less of a social occasion to be enjoyed.

Eat processed foods

You can’t help but eat processed foods… the convenience is irresistible.

When you eat processed foods, you reduce the chances of being poisoned or catching a foodborne illness. The nutritional value of what you eat can be more consistent, and you’ll likely be consuming more nutrients and vitamins than if you only ate unprocessed foods.

On the other hand, by eating processed foods, you expose yourself to a potential loss of heat-sensitive vitamins and nutrients, which are removed to improve shelf life, taste, and appearance. You are also exposing yourself to the potential adverse effects of various additives and preservatives on your health, some of which can be very serious indeed.

The high-calorie nature of processed foods due to the large amounts of sugar and fats they contain makes them extremely problematic for diabetics and those with high cholesterol and blood pressure levels.

The only solution is to choose the processed foods you buy with the utmost care – by reading the labels on the packaging – and to focus your diet on fresh or frozen produce as much as possible.

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