Part of the process
Why do we process food?
Cooking, fermenting, salting, drying and pickling all help preserve food or make it nicer to eat. Modern food processing is still about preservation – frozen peas, for instance, were not marketed until the 1950s – but is also geared to convenience, choice, accessibility and consumer appeal.
Colours, flavours and textures are modified by food scientists and food technologists. The resulting product, which might be brightly coloured, freeze-dried, blended or aerated, would perhaps not be recognised as food by our ancestors but certainly appeals to many of us.
As research shows which ingredients are good for you, food producers try to improve what they offer. Things are added (like vitamins to ‘fortified’ breakfast cereal) or taken away (like fat from fat-free milk).
Poor diets can sometimes lead to deficiencies in essential micronutrients. An important example is folic acid – the synthetic form of folate, a B vitamin that is found in leafy vegetables. Low folic acid levels increase the risk of a range of developmental problems in babies, especially neural tube defects such as spinal bifida. The USA made the addition of folic acid to many cereal products compulsory in 1998, which produced a 28 per cent reduction in neural tube defects by 2000. The addition of folic acid to foodstuffs has been recommended by the UK Food Standards Agency but is not yet compulsory.
Foods may be processed to offer health benefits beyond those of their inherent nutritional value. So-called ‘neutraceuticals’ include margarine supplemented with processed plant esters (stanols) that allow the margarine’s makers to claim it will lower cholesterol levels. The genetic modification of crops could produce finer control over the composition of foods. Tomatoes, which are naturally high in lycopenes (a kind of antioxidant), have been engineered to produce high levels of another antioxidant – anthocyanins, which are normally found in berry fruits. The potential benefits of antioxidants are still under investigation. Salt is included in many processed foods.Lead image:
- NHS Choices: Eating processed foods
- Medline Plus: Folic acid in diet
- News Medical: What are neutraceuticals?
- BBC News: Genetically-modified purple tomatoes heading for shops