Most foods we consume have been processed. It may not always be obvious which foods are processed, however both fresh and processed foods make up vital parts of the food supply. According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a processed food is “Any food other than a raw agricultural commodity… that has been subject to washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging, or other procedures that alter the food from its natural state. Processing also may include the addition of other ingredients to the food, such as preservatives, flavors, nutrients, and other food additives or substances accepted for use in food products, such as salt, sugars, and fats.” Processed food contributes to both food security (ensuring that sufficient food is available) and nutrition security (ensuring that food quality meets human nutrient needs).
There is a common misconception that processed foods in general are “less healthy” or nutritious as compared to other foods. When we think of “processed foods” we automatically think of junk foods such as Twinkies, Gummy Bears, and Cheetos’s, however the reality is many processed foods can offer equal, or in some more rare cases greater nutritive value. For example, your body absorbs more of the “antioxidant” lycopene from stewed canned tomatoes vs. regular whole tomatoes. Processing makes it possible for us to add many important nutrients that many American’s would otherwise find it hard to obtain, in sufficient amounts to the diet. In the early 1990’s as a result of the addition of folate to grains, a dramatic decrease in neural tube defects among newborn infants was seen. In fact, processed foods contribute approximately 55% of the U.S. intake of dietary fiber, 48% of calcium, 43% of potassium, 34% of vitamin D, 64% of iron, 65% of folate, and 46% of vitamin B-12.
Food safety has improved dramatically in the last few decades because of a result of modern food processing. Despite mainstream media attention to recalls and outbreaks of foodborne illness, the incidences of outbreaks from pathogens such as E.coli have decreased over the last decade. New packaging technologies, use of preservatives, and innovations in functional ingredients have allowed delicious foods to stay fresh from farm to fork!
The International Food Information Council and the Alliance to Feed the Future have some great online resources available for those interested in reading more about how processed foods contribute to the safety and nutritional value of the food supply.