The World Needs Processed Food
THE WORD “PROCESSED” has become something of a slur.
Say “processed food” and most of us picture unhealthy, cheap junk. Fresh food straight from the garden or the field is good. Once we’ve put it through a processing plant or a laboratory, we’ve removed its halo qualities and added a bunch of bad ones. That means meat substitutes are no better than junk food.
But this perspective is short-sighted. We’re not going to feed billions a nutritious diet sustainably without food processing. The growing backlash against processing is one that neither people nor the planet can afford.
The benefits of processed food
Processed food is more than Coca-Cola, Dairy Milk chocolate, and ready meals. Most plant and animal products go through some form of processing to convert them into something that we can—and want to—eat. We mill grain into flour to make bread. We butcher and debone animals to get meat. We pasteurize milk.
Processed foods have brought us countless benefits, many of which we quickly forget. Iodized salt is just one example; iodine deficiencies used to be common across the world, leading to increased risks of stillbirths and miscarriages, significant reductions in IQ, and reduced cognitive development. Most of the world now consumes salt with iodine added, and many countries have eliminated this deficiency. By adding nutrients to food, we’ve been able to address a number of other micronutrient deficiencies.
We’ve been able to preserve food and increase its shelf life, reducing food waste. We’ve reduced the spread of food-borne diseases. Those with food allergies and intolerances can now eat a balanced diet. We don’t need to spend the day preparing food—this has been particularly important for the educational and career development of women. Last but not least: taste. Our shelves are now lined with great-tasting foods.
Of course, when people talk about “processed” food they’re often talking about ultra-processed food (UPF). These snacks and prepared meals are designed to have a longer shelf life and be more convenient and palatable. Corporations work hard to find the “Goldilocks” flavor profile we can’t resist by adding sugar and fat to make food as tasty as possible. Many describe these finely tuned combinations as addictive.