Food processing and our food system

Food processing can improve our food and our economy.

Practices that transform raw plant and animal materials into products for consumers are known as food processing, which is often associated with unhealthy foods. However, there are many types of food processing, with many reasons why foods are processed, and not all processed food is bad.

Foods that are minimally-processed do not change the foods’ original structure or nutritional properties. Examples of minimal food processing are washing, peeling, slicing, juicing or removing inedible parts. Many simple preservation methods such as freezing, drying, fermenting and pasteurizing are considered to be minimal processing, and are usually done to prevent spoilage.

Processed food ingredients have had their structure and/or nutrients changed, sometimes radically, and are typically used in cooking. Examples of processed food ingredients include flour, oil, sugars and starches. These processed food ingredients are often high in calories relative to their nutrient content.

Highly-processed foods are combinations of unprocessed, processed and processed food ingredients. Processing techniques include mixing, baking, frying, curing, smoking and adding vitamins or minerals. Examples of highly processed foods include cakes, cookies, chips, soft drinks, cereals, breads, pastas, hot dogs and sausages, smoked, canned, salted and cured meats.

Fresh, unprocessed foods are often assumed to be healthier than processed foods. However, minimally-processed foods such as frozen or canned produce are harvested and processed at their peak of ripeness, flavor and nutritive value. Fresh produce available in the grocery store are often picked weeks before they were ripe and may not have as high of a nutrition value as their frozen or canned counterparts. This is a case where a minimally-processed food can be healthier than the unprocessed equivalent. Preserved foods can increase the access of food when storing fresh foods for long periods of time isn’t practical.

According to Crain’s Detroit Business, Michigan’s lack of food processors limits the state’s growth in agriculture, and can put producers at a disadvantage if they must transport their products long distances out of state for processing. Processing is an integral part of our food system that needs further development in Michigan for the health of our producers and our economy. For more information about food processing and food systems, contact your local Michigan State University Extension office. 

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