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What are processed foods?

In the food industry, processing techniques are used to transform raw foods and ingredients into new products. These techniques include grinding grains for flour, crushing seeds to extract their oil, churning milk to make butter, mixing ingredients to make dough, and baking cookies.

While some food processing techniques use cutting-edge technology, others are still practiced as they were millennia ago. Before scientists discovered modern techniques, early Egyptians brewed and baked bread with yeast.

Today, almost all foods are processed. Processing offers important benefits in addition to supplying a diverse range of foods with a longer shelf life.

Here are some of the benefits of food processing:



After processing, food can spoil due to the action of yeasts, molds, bacteria, and other effects of maturation. Spoilage alters food’s taste, reduces its nutritional benefits, and makes it potentially unsafe to be eaten.

Some of the most ancient food processing techniques, such as drying fruits, pickling vegetables, salting meat, fermenting dairy products (for example, to make cheese or yogurt), or fermenting dough to make bread, are still used today because they preserve food and delay its deterioration.

Processing food for conservation purposes allows it to be transported over extended distances, stored for longer periods, and savored almost year-round while retaining its nutritional value. As a result, processing enables more people to enjoy a wider variety of food products.

Processing can also help inhibit or destroy pathogens (disease-causing organisms) that can contaminate food. Preservation techniques such as refrigeration, fermentation, dehydration, and the use of salt, sugar, or additives can slow or stop the growth of pathogens. Heat processes, such as pasteurization and cooking, are also used to eliminate them.



By modifying the flavors, textures, aromas, colors, and shapes of foods and raw materials, food processing can create a wide variety of foods, one of the recommended guidelines for maintaining a healthy and balanced diet.

Processing can also create products that require little or no preparation by consumers. Canned, packaged, and frozen foods offer the convenience of immediate heating or consumption to consumers whose work, transportation demands, education, and other activities do not allow them to cook large meals.

Many convenience foods are made with refined grains that can help encourage healthier eating patterns.



Some processing techniques can remove nutrients from food. For example, grain refining removes bran and germ, which contain essential nutrients such as vitamin B, iron, and fiber. Other processing techniques, such as fermentation, can improve food's nutrient quality, while freezing fruits and vegetables can preserve nutrients even after they are harvested.

Some processing approaches raise nutrient levels by adding vitamins, minerals, and proteins with a technique called fortification, which is the restoration of some of the nutrients lost during processing.

Fortification adds nutrients that exceed the natural levels of food. In several countries, fortified foods include salt fortified with iodine, milk fortified with vitamins A and D, and products made from cereals fortified with iron, vitamin B, and folic acid. These additions play an essential role in helping to prevent nutrient deficiencies and contribute to counteracting potential public health problems.



Whether canned, bottled, or packed, processed foods are usually sold packaged. All those systems play a significant role in food conservation and safety, as they provide a barrier against bacterial impurities; pests; physical damage; corruption from air, light, or dust; and even contamination by accidental or intentional actions by others. Damaged or imperfect packaging can alert consumers that the product has been opened or handled inadequately. Packaging can also facilitate food transportation, storage, and convenience; for example, the beak in a milk container simplifies its pouring. The packaging also offers a surface in which to display fundamental information about the product, such as ingredients, characteristics, nutritional information, expiration date, etc. 


Ref. Driver, K. (2016, August 10). Food System Primer. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.