The word “processed” has become something of an excuse.
Say “processed food” and most of us imagine unhealthy, cheap junk. Fresh food straight from the garden or field is good. Once we put it through a processing plant or lab, we removed its halo properties and added some bad ones. That means that meat substitutes are no better than junk food.
But this perspective is shortsighted. We are not going to sustainably feed billions on a nutritious diet without food processing. The growing resistance to processing is one that neither people nor the planet can afford.
The benefits of processed foods
Processed food is more than Coca-Cola, dairy milk chocolate and ready meals. Most plant and animal products undergo some form of processing to turn them into something we can and want to eat. We grind grain into flour to make bread. We slaughter 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 were common around the world, leading to an increased risk of stillbirth and miscarriages, a significant reduction in IQ and impaired 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 have been able to address a number of other micronutrient deficiencies.
We have succeeded in preserving food and extending its shelf life, reducing food waste. We have reduced the spread of foodborne illness. People with food allergies and intolerances can now follow a balanced diet. We don’t have to spend all day preparing food – this has been especially important for women’s education and career development. Last but not least: taste. Our shelves are now full of great tasting dishes.
Of course, when people talk about “processed” foods, they’re often referring to ultra-processed foods (UPF). These snacks and ready meals are designed to last longer and be more convenient and tasty. Companies are working hard to find the ‘Goldilocks’ flavor profile we can’t resist adding sugar and fat to make food as tasty as possible. Many describe these finely tuned combinations as addictive.
It is true that increased consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with poor health outcomes. It has been associated with lower consumption of essential nutrients, such as vitamins C, D, and B12. The more of these foods we eat, the more likely we are to be overweight or obese. This puts us at a higher risk of health problems such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. Ultra-processed foods are easy to overconsume.
The problem with most UPFs is that they contain more calories, sugar and fat. And they contain less protein and fiber, the nutrients that keep us full.
But this is not inherent in food processing itself. What matters is what companies add to our food. They can make healthier food if they want to – or if we demand it.
The growing resistance to meat substitutes
One area where I see the greatest resistance to processing is with meat substitutes.
These products try to mimic the experience of meat and contain vegetable proteins such as soy-based sausages; Impossible and Beyond Meat Burgers; proteins made from fermentation, such as Quorn, and home-grown meat.