In America alone, the food processing industry has about 21 thousand companies and has a revenue of about $ 750 billion! If we look at the bigger picture, the global sale of processed foods is estimated to be $2 trillion. In other words, 37.5% of sales come from The U.S.
The food processing industry is a mature sector that makes food last longer, taste better, and seem healthier but is that the case?
Below, we will be looking at chemicals that are used in food processing and why they are used in the first place.
What Is Processed Food?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines processed food as having undergone many changes to its natural state. This means any raw agricultural commodity subjected to:
- or other procedures that alter the food from its natural state.
Additionally, there may also be other ingredients, including preservatives, flavors, nutrients, and other substances that have been approved for use in foods, such as salt, sugars, and fats.
The Institute of Food Technologists glossary includes several terms related to food processing, including concentrating, microwave, filtering, fermenting, and storing.
Based on these standards, virtually all foods sold in supermarkets would be classified as “processed” somehow. The food inside the produce aisle undergoes four or more processing steps before it is sold to consumers; even the bananas lose nutrients as soon as they are harvested. It’s therefore essential to distinguish between food processing degrees in practice.
How Is Food Processed?
There are seven methods that are used to process food. Namely:
Temperatures are raised to high levels while the food is being prepared. Pasteurization is the term used to describe this process. After that, it is packaged into an air-tight can and stored.
Under anaerobic conditions, bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms break down sugars. This process is known as Fermentation. Hence, no oxygen is required for the process to occur (except for oxygen present in sugar).
The temperature of food is lowered below 0°C to reduce the activity of harmful bacteria. Foods such as fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, and ready meals can be preserved using this process.
Modified atmosphere packaging
As an alternative to air, packing materials often include protective gas mixtures, including oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen. They prolong the shelf life of fresh food products.
Microorganisms are killed by heating and quickly cooling down food. Foodborne illnesses, such as food poisoning may be caused by bacteria prevalent in raw milk. The best way to ensure the safety of the food is to boil it (at home) or pasteurize it (on a large scale). The pasteurization of canned goods, juices, and alcoholic beverages is a standard preservation method for goods other than dairy.
Food is heated and chemically treated and then exposed to the smoke from wood-burning to help prolong its life.
In processed food, food additives help keep it fresh, safe, palatable, and aesthetically pleasing. Food additives have a specific purpose, such as enhancing food safety or maintaining food quality during storage.
The Chemicals Of Processed Food
Why Are Chemicals Used In Processed Food?
According to Harvard, some preservatives promote the safety of the food by preventing the growth of mold and bacteria. Another benefit is the prevention of spoilage and “off” flavors. The reasons why chemicals are used are as follows:
Processors remove harmful microorganisms, improving food safety and extending the shelf life. Pasteurization, air-tight packaging, and preservatives are the main methods.
Food processing can reduce the price of food. Unlike fresh vegetables, frozen vegetables have a similar nutritional value but at a lower cost because they have already been prepared, do not contain inedible parts, can be purchased in bulk, and can last for a longer period. Thus, processing increases the shelf life of food and reduces waste, thereby reducing the overall cost of food production.
- Improve taste and color
Some chemicals are used to improve the taste of the food as well as make the color of the food more appealing. You are more likely to pick up food that looks delicious and bright rather than one that looks a bit dull. A chemical such as MSG is used as a flavor enhancer.
What chemicals are commonly used in food processing?
Nitrates and Nitrites
The antimicrobials nitrites and nitrates effectively protect against the botulism bacterium. However, they are known to cause health problems. Richard Scanlan, Ph.D., The Linus Pauling Institute notes that nitrites react with certain amino acids in the digestive system. According to Richard, this has been linked to cancer. As a color stabilizer, sodium nitrate slowly metabolizes into nitrites. Bacon, cured meats, tobacco products, and hot dogs are examples of foods commonly containing nitrites and nitrates.
Sulfites and Sulfur Dioxide
As preservatives, sulfur dioxide and sulfites are both antimicrobials. Generally, sulfites can be found in dried fruits, red wine, and some fruit juice brands. Numerous foods contain sulfur dioxide. Lipids, such as fats, become less oxidized when this compound is present. Freshly harvested fruits and vegetables cannot ripen when sprayed with them. These two compounds can cause an allergic reaction in specific individuals, and they have known allergens for many asthmatics.
Alginate, Propylene Glycol Alginate
The natural compound known as alginate is derived from seaweed and used to thicken or stabilize foam. A chemically modified propylene glycol alginate can thicken foods, such as beer and soft drinks, with a higher acid concentration. Among the milk products that use alginate are ice cream, cheese, cottage cheese, and yogurt.
According to The Center for Science in the Public Interest, Aspartame should be avoided. Combining amino acids with methanol, Aspartame is a sweetener. The chemical compound may cause cancer and other health-related problems, though more comprehensive studies are needed to prove this. Primarily found in soft drinks and drink mixes and many low-calorie, processed desserts, Aspartame is used in diet foods as an artificial sweetener in diet foods. Final Thoughts
Processed food includes the introduction of additives that improve shelf-life, stability, or palatability and simple technologies such as freezing or milling. Generally, the ideal diet emphasizes minimally or unprocessed foods. That said, processed foods are a consumer’s choice, and there are pros and cons associated with each type. Dietary intake of processed foods can be guided by the Nutrition Facts Label and ingredients list.
Studies have shown an association between high- and ultra-processed foods and poor health outcomes (especially for those who consume high amounts of them). Foods that are over-processed and contain sugars, sodium, and unhealthy fats are associated with poor health.