This is a big topic that will take many articles to address. All other articles on this topic will refer back to this originally series.
WHAT ARE “PROCESSED FOODS” AND “ULTRA-PROCESSED FOODS”?
Most foods are processed in one way or another. Unless you pull an apple off a tree or a carrot out of the ground and just eat it, it’s processed. If you wash it, it’s processed. If you chop it, it’s processed. ‘Food Processing’ is a very utilitarian term to describe a wide variety of activities that range from the meticulous preparation of haute cuisine to peeling potatoes to manufacturing Twinkies.
In this article in the Atlantic titled “How Ultra-Processed Foods are Killing Us“, which highlights excerpts from a longer scholarly article published in the Journal of the World Public Health Nutrition Association, ‘processed foods’ are categorized as follows:
- Type 1: Unprocessed or minimally processed foods that do not change the nutritional properties of the food.
- Type 2: Processed culinary or food industry ingredients such as oils, fats, sugar and sweeteners, flours, starches, and salt. These are depleted of nutrients and provide little beyond calories (except for salt, which has no calories).
- Type 3: Ultra-processed products that combine Type 2 ingredients (and, rarely, traces of Type 1). The purpose of Type 3 ultra-processed foods is to create durable, accessible, convenient, attractive, ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat products. Such ultra-processed products are formulated to reduce microbial deterioration (‘long shelf life’), to be transportable for long distances, to be extremely palatable (‘high organoleptic quality’) and often to be habit-forming. Typically they are designed to be consumed anywhere—in fast-food establishments, at home in place of domestically prepared and cooked food, and while watching television, at a desk or elsewhere at work, in the street, and while driving.
In the title of this article, we made a very broad statement about processed foods, namely that they are bad for you. Given the broad definition we are applying to the term, this title isn’t strictly precise. The reality is that this topic is quite complex. When making the statement that ‘processed foods’ are bad for you, we are specifically referring to foods that have been chemically altered from their natural state. These kinds of ‘processed foods’ are bad for you. In this series of articles we will discuss (a) why they are bad for you, (b) guide you regarding how to avoid and eliminate them from your life, and (c) provide resources regarding how to source foods that will aid your health and well-being, as well as the tools you need to properly prepare them. We will tackle these challenging issues by exploring the history of all kinds of processed foods (good and bad) and discussing the pros and cons of various food preparation techniques with regard to human health.
For prehistoric humans, food processing was essential for survival. Foods needed to be processed so they did not become rancid and inedible.
There are reasons for processing food, that are the same today as they have always been, which include:
- Preparing foods to make them easier to use / consume or more appetizing for the end-consumer (which we’ll refer to as “Preparing”);
- Preserving foods so they remain edible for longer periods of time (which we’ll refer to as “Preserving”); and
- Creating entirely new products sold to consumers for consumption (which we’ll refer to as “Creating”).
Preparing, Preserving and Creating foods involves a variety of techniques. Some of these techniques have been around for thousands of years while others have been developed more recently. This article in Scientific American Magazine titled “Processed Food: A 2 Million-Year History” takes us through a high-level history of food processing.
In a modern context, reasons for processing food has evolved. While health and sanitation were driving forces in the past, commercial reasons have
is typically undertaken in support of the commercial food industry. Targeted outcomes from processing foods include:
- Decreasing production costs
- Increasing yields from crops and raising animals
- Lengthening shelf lives for products so that they can be shipped long distances and kept on shelves for long periods of time
- Ease of production
- Eliminating harmful pathogens
- Controlling patents
Below we explore this history of food processing in greater detail and discuss the ramifications of these events.
ANCIENT METHODS OF FOOD PROCESSING
Ancient methods of food processing, which are examples of Preparing and Preserving, include:
- Preserving with salt; and
- Various forms of cooking such as roasting, smoking, steaming and oven baking.
These ancient methods of food processing and preservation remained essentially the same until the Industrial Revolution, which began in the UK and spread to Europe and North America. This was a dynamic and turbulent era in history that saw governments jockey and clash over territory and resources, while entrepreneurs and industrialists made and lost fortunes. This period and the years that followed was also a time of scientific and technological innovation. These innovations were romanticized in many ways and people largely embraced this advancement into the emerging modern world. There was a real sense that a better world was being created through science, which included innovations in food processing. Food-related innovations during this period focused on Preserving and included:
- Canning: Canning preserves food in an airtight container, providing a shelf-life typically of one to five years (longer under certain circumstances). Like many innovations, modern food processing methods were first developed to serve military needs. Canning was a French innovation that was catalyzed by a cash reward offered for a solution to feeding troops during the Napoleanic Wars of the early 1800s.
- Pasteurization: In 1864, French scientist Louis Pasteur discovered that heating beer and wine was enough to kill most of the bacteria that caused spoilage, thereby preventing these beverages from turning sour. This process eliminates pathogenic microbes and lowers microbial numbers to prolong the quality of the beverage. Today, pasteurization is widely used in the dairy and food industries for microbial control and preservation of food. If you’ve read our article titled “You’re Only 10% Human“, you can surely appreciate that pasteurization kills not only pathogenic bacteria, but also beneficial probiotics, while destroying the value of vitamins in milk (as discussed further in this article by Dr. Axe titled “The Truth About Pasteurization“).
A CONVERGENCE OF INNOVATIONS & THE BIRTH OF HYDROGENATED OILS
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, new food processing techniques were being developed as a result of the convergence of rapidly evolving technologies and innovations across a variety of emerging industries. By example, companies involved in the manufacture of soap and candles were exploring new chemical processes at that time. Traditional methods of producing soap and candles involve lard (from pig fat) and tallow (from beef or mutton fat). Both lard and tallow are byproducts of the commercial meat industry. With demand and cost for these animal-based materials increasing in the 18th century, manufacturers of soap and candles sought alternatives through chemistry.
In the 1890s, American chemist James Boyce, who had overseen the development of Gold Dust Washing Powder (a National product in the U.S. at that time), was experimenting with cottonseed oil. Until that time, cotton seeds were deemed to have little practical value, although they comprise a significant proportion of materials harvested from cotton fields. He discovered that a trace amount of nickel catalyzed the hydrogenation of cottonseed oil, thereby producing a substance that had a similar texture to lard and tallow.
This process was expanded upon by French scientist Paul Sabatier who investigated chemical reactions involving hydrogenation and gases. This concept was further built upon by German chemist Wilhelm Normann who perfected a process that converted liquid oils to solids through hydrogenation,thereby changing their physical properties. He patented the process in both Germany and the UK in 1903 and went on to build the Hertford Company that produced hardened fats.
Changing plant-based oils (including cottonseed oils) from a liquid to something that is thick and solid like lard requires a process called “Hydrogenation“. In its natural state, cottonseed oil is (from a chemical perspective) an “Unsaturated Fat” or “Unsaturated Fatty Acid”. As highlighted in this article titled “What Foods Contain Saturated Fats“, other examples of Unsaturated Fats include natural vegetable oils and oily fish, as well as almonds, avocado, peanut butter, walnuts, sardines, seeds, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, salmon, and flax seeds.
“Fatty Acids” are chains of carbon atoms that play an important role in biological processes and in the construction of biological structures (such as cell membranes). Unsaturated Fatty Acids, or “Good Fats” have one or more double bonds between carbon atoms (as shown below):
In the “Unsaturated Fat” diagram, you see the double bonds between two carbon atoms. The Saturated Fat (also known as “Hydrogenated Oil” or “Hydrogenated Fat”) does not have such double bonds. You can convert an Unsaturated Fat to a Saturated Fat by ‘saturating’ it with Hydrogen atoms (a process also known as “Hydrogenation”).
The reason the commercial food industry likes Saturated Fats so much is that these double bonds make foods containing Unsaturated Fatty Acids susceptible to becoming rancid and inedible. Products made with Saturated Fats are far less susceptible to rancidity and therefore have longer shelf lives and can be transported more easily.
Trans Fats do not occur in nature.
As highlighted in this article titled “Facts About Hydrogenated Fats and Oils”, hydrogenated fats have two major economic advantages over natural saturated fats: (1) they are cheaper to produce, and (2) they have a longer shelf life. As a result, hydrogenated fats and partially hydrogenated fats (or Trans Fats) are used everywhere in processed foods, as food produced with them have the same benefits. They are also used in many restaurants and fast food establishments for frying because they stand up better to heat and can be used longer.
In 1907, the rights to Normann’s UK patent was acquired by Joseph Crosfield & Sons Ltd., which actively marketed the process to European soap manufacturers in an attempt to monetize this patent. This article from The AOCS Lipid Library titled “The Battle Over Hydrogenation (1903-1920)” describes the intense patent struggles related to hydrogenation at that time.
In 1907, Crosfeld & Sons brought the technique to the United States in the hope of selling the process to a American company. By January 1908, they made a business arrangement with the soap and candle manufacturer Proctor & Gamble, who subsequently filed several patents related to the hydrogenation of oils. The first related to the manufacture of soap and the second to the hydrogenation of cottonseed oil for food products. Using the methodologies acquired from Crosfeld & Sons, P&G launched the first hydrogenated vegetable shortening, Crisco, in 1911. The name “Crisco” came from what they called “CRYStallized COttonseed oil”.
As discussed in this article in The Atlantic titled “How Vegetable Oils Replaced Animal Fats in the American Diet“, P&G faced the daunting task of convincing homemakers to swap butter and lard for a new for a new fat created in a factory. Never before had Proctor & Gamble, or any other company for that matter, put so much marketing support or advertising dollars behind a product. They hired J. Walter Thompson Agency, America’s first full-service advertising agency staffed by real artists and professional writers. Samples of Crisco were mailed to grocers, restaurants, nutritionists, and home economists. Eight alternative marketing strategies were tested in different cities and their impacts calculated and compared. Doughnuts were fried in Crisco and handed out in the streets. Women who purchased the new industrial fat got a free cookbook of Crisco recipes (the cover shown above). It opened with the line, “The culinary world is revising its entire cookbook on account of the advent of Crisco, a new and altogether different cooking fat.” Recipes for asparagus soup, baked salmon with Colbert sauce, stuffed beets, curried cauliflower, and tomato sandwiches all called for three to four tablespoons of Crisco.
Health claims on food packaging were then unregulated, and the copywriters claimed that cottonseed oil was healthier than animal fats for digestion. Advertisements in the Ladies’ Home Journal encouraged homemakers to try the new fat and “realize why its discovery will affect every family in America.” The unprecedented product rollout resulted in the sales of 2.6 million pounds of Crisco in 1912 and 60 million pounds just four years later. This new food bolstered the bottom line of a company whose other products were Ivory Soap, Lenox Soap, White Naphtha Laundry Soap, and Star Soap. It also helped usher in the age of margarine as well as low-fat foods.
Procter & Gamble’s claims about Crisco touching the lives of every American proved eerily prescient. The substance (like many of its imitators) was 50 percent trans fat, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that its health risks were understood. It is estimated that for every two percent increase in consumption of trans fat (still found in many processed and fast foods) the risk of heart disease increases by 23 percent. As surprising as it might be to hear, the fact that animal fats pose this same risk is not supported by science.
Given its consistency, they decided to market the product as a replacement to lard, which is used not only to make soap and candles, but also in cooking. P&G has marketed Crisco as being more digestible, cleaner and more economical than lard. The formula was later adjusted to use soybean oil. As an aside, soybeans are amongst the most pervasive genetically modified crops (or GMOs), which we discuss further in this article titled “GMOs; Frankenstein Foods“.
While the approach was certainly innovative, Crisco is unfortunately an early example of how the commercial food industry is poisoning us. Here’s why. My apologies in advance for this little chemistry lesson, but it is important to understand a bit about this when talking about food processing and its impact on our health.
Consumption of Saturated Fats has been linked to higher cholesterol
To begin, Soybeans are a crop that is often genetically modified (or Genetically Modified Organisms, or “GMO”). Farmers producing Soybeans and Corn are subsidized by the U.S. Government, which artificially reduces the price of those commodities worldwide
WWII UNTIL TODAY
Food processing evolved and intensified significantly in the 20th century as a result of World War II, the space race, and the rise of the consumer society in developed countries.
Romance of science and food.
Trumped Convenience over taste
The need to preserve and transport harvest is a part of human history
Chemistry of processed foods.
Shelf life / Economies of Scale / Cheap
Travels longer, becomes less fresh
We cook less – rely more on processed foods
Cheaper food easier
mid-1970s wages start to fall
less time, less money, dependence goes up
what do people want?
paradox of plenty – more of the wrong things
laden with sugar, fat, salt, (the trio) less nutrition
link between processed foods and obesity
marketing and food processing linked
Explosion of alternative food systems – drive to local produce – exploded last 10-15 years – consumers and producers pushing back
Corn – Surplus of Corn + Corn Syrup
Scale – make taste every single time (eliminate the variability of nature)
Processed + further processed foods (Extreme Foods)
Doritos – mouth feel / artificial mouth / hollow salt crystals
Labels highly regulated (ingredient list)
Hydrogenation / foods + applications 50.32 – Crisco
shelf life / textures – makes easier to accomplish – hardens
red meat article in 1960s increased heart disease
lead to increased chicken consumption
Big companies with big revenue streams
Innovation happens in smaller companies
Resulting innovations include:
According to this entry in Wikipedia, the commercial food industry credits food processing with the following benefits:
- Removal of toxins
- easing marketing and distribution tasks and
- increasing food consistency.
- yearly availability of many foods
- enables transportation of delicate perishable foods across long distances
- makes many kinds of food safe to eat by de-activating spoilage and pathogenic micro-organisms.
- Processed foods usually less susceptible to early spoilage
- Better suited for long distance transportation from the source to the consumer
- Alleviate food shortages
- Improved overall nutrition of populations as it made many new foods available to the masses.
- Reduce incidence of food borne disease
- Fresh materials such as fresh produce and raw meat are more likely to
They claim that modern supermarkets would not exist without modern food processing techniques and long voyages would not be possible.