It's all about the process!

Published: 19/09/2022

As part of our #FoodFuture project, FoodDrinkEurope’s nutrition expert Bo Dohmen interviewed Professor Vincenzo Fogliano from Wageningen University & Research, to understand the basics around food processing and how it contributes to achieving more sustainable food systems.

What is food processing?

In sum, food processing is a series of operations on food and drink ingredients for a specific purpose, whether that’s extending the final product’s shelf-life, ensure safety or improving nutritional characteristics.

Taking the evolutionary perspective, food processing is one of the first things our ancestors did with their food. We started processing our food from the moment we began cooking it over fire.

In modern times, when we talk about ‘processed foods’, we probably think of that which is done in the food industry, with professional food processes. But we mustn’t forget that in our own kitchens, we too are food processors and today, the processing that we can take advantage of at home is quite advanced when compared to those of the past and very similar to what takes place in advanced food factories.

How can food processing improve nutritional characteristics?

For example, if you cook a potato, you improve the nutritional quality by making the starch more digestible.

Try to eat a raw potato and you will see why food processing is important.

Of course, we can eat many foods raw but processing them allows us to access a real diversity of food options in our diets. Think of all the different products that you can make with simple maize (corn) and applying different processing techniques.

What does food diversity mean and why is it important?

Food diversity allows us to access a varied diet and all nutritionists in the world agree that having a diverse diet is essential. As omnivores, we should be eating a little bit of everything!

But sometimes we may not be able to access a varied diet from within just our local community and so food processing can help improve access to such diversity.

What are other benefits of food processing?

Food processing also allows us to extend the shelf-life of foodstuffs.

We’ve all found ourselves in situations where we’ve not been to the shops in a while and we come to make dinner and don’t quite have a full pantry to choose from. Well, in those situations it’s nice to see that we still have a long-lasting can of beans in the cupboard with which to throw a nutritious meal together.

Processing allows us to store a large amount of food for long time, which helps greatly to reduce food waste. Having the capacity to process foodstuffs and store them for a long time is part of the solution for global food sustainability and food security.

Does food processing reduce the nutrient content of food?

Broadly no, the idea that when you process a raw food you destroy a load of nutrients is not true. But for some specific sectors and for specific processes you may reduce certain nutrients.

For example, when cooking tomato, you can see a reduction in Ascorbic Acid (aka vitamin C) and when cooking broccoli the same for glucosinolates but with modern processing techniques, like non-thermal processing, this can generally be avoided and the nutrient quality of the product can in fact be enhanced.

You recently co-authored an article “The ultra-processed foods hypothesis: a product processed well beyond the basic ingredients in the package”, can you explain in a nutshell what it is about?

The article was spurred by the increasing use of so-called ‘ultra-processed foods’ categorisation, which some corners of society are using in reference to certain types of food processing and by which some insinuate that the level of processing in and of itself is a negative thing.

When you use the word “ultra”, it gives a connotation of excess. So, we wanted to look at whether food processing is excessive and whether it results in negative outcomes in and of itself.

We found that there are certainly costs to food processing but in general, food processing is a benefit for society. If it is well-done, safe, and sustainable, it can help us solve our challenges whether that is on issues of nutrition, sustainability, or food security.

 In sum, adopting a black-and-white attitude to food processing – that the processing of food is bad – is not helpful. We cannot abandon food processing.

What do you think of the term ‘ultra-processed food’ and what does it mean for our food system?

If the term ‘ultra-processed food’ becomes a reality, and foods face legislation or stigmatisation on the basis of such a categorisation, it will impact our sustainability efforts.

If you convince the consumer that any food that has undergone any type of processing is bad and that we should only eat fresh and raw food, then people might be dissuaded from buying such foods and would thus lose access to the many essential foods in their diet.

We need a varied diet and parts of that should be fresh food but processed foods are an easy source for those other parts of such a diet.

Let’s not forget, that fresh and local foods are generally more expensive than other food items in the shop. If we start erroneously telling the consumer that processing is bad for your health and that giving your child a so-called ‘ultra-processed’ food makes you a bad parent, then how might that impact the consumer’s budget?

Ultimately, there is no scientific evidence that food processing has a negative impact on our health.

What is the role of the food industry in creating healthier and more sustainable food systems?

Most people think our food system is dominated by the big names – the big companies. But they don’t actually hold a big share of our foodscape.

Still, the majority of our food is produced by small and medium companies and local producers, especially here in Europe.

And so, there’s only so much that the big names can do to steer consumers. But one of the things that all food producers can do is to look at product reformulation.

Formulation of the product is not the problem in and of itself, independent of whether you process it or not. The nutritional quality of the ingredient is not related to processing. Processing is a mechanical, physical, chemical operation, so the food industry has a huge opportunity to reformulate their processing techniques to achieve better nutritional outcomes. Adapting processing can help, for example, to control and mitigate certain contaminants that may emerge during processing, such as acrylamide.

Relatedly, one of the biggest steps companies can take is to reduce the use of highly-refined ingredients (e.g. highly-refined sugar and grains). By using less refined ingredients, we can reduce costs in some cases (such as energy) whilst also improving health outcomes.

Though, by increasing the use of less-refined ingredients can lead to greater difficulty in controlling the process, so it can be a double-edged sword for manufacturers but certainly not something that can’t be handled with modern food processing techniques.

This of course also requires a change in the consumer’s tastes and mentality.

 How do you change the consumers’ mentality?

Education, education, education.

School programmes are still very limited in general when it comes to food information and this should be closely re-examined by relevant authorities.

Social media is also a great tool that we need to start using for good. The industry in general and our body of science often struggle to use this new media in a positive way to communicate information about food and nutrition but it is essential that we do this.

Public institutions also have to find the right way to communicate in friendly and informative way.

Ultimately, eating certain products to excess for example, should not be encouraged and should be stigmatised. But in the end, all foods in moderation can and should be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle.

Thankfully, with sustainability we have an opportunity to key into the younger generation’s desire to do good and with this, to know more about our foodscape.

What then would your message be for policymakers working on this topic?

We need to change outcomes positively, as opposed to negatively. Incentives or taxation policy can have a use but consequences abound and they must be implemented carefully.

We must not forget that here in Europe, working only within the national level does not work. We need to adopt solutions together as a united bloc.

What’s more, labels will not change the habits of those who don’t care. That is to say that the consumers who actively care about their health are already broadly well-informed and are already adapting their habits to match but they are a minority. They tend to steer dietary trends and are doing the same now with the so-called ‘ultra-processed food’ issue.

The large majority of consumers don’t necessarily match their habits to such concerns about their health and for these people, no amount of labelling is going to change that.

To change the eating habits of this vast majority of consumers, you need to reach them early through education.

I would urge policymakers to tackle the root cause of poor eating, rather than making arbitrary distinctions about our food.

By Bo Dohmen

Senior Manager, Nutrition & Health