14.5 – Food Processing

learning Objectives

  • Examine the pros and cons of food processing.


Food processing includes the methods and techniques used to transform raw ingredients into packaged food. Workers in this industry use harvested crops or slaughtered and butchered livestock to create products that are marketed to the public. There are different ways in which food can be processed, from a one-off product, such as a wedding cake, to a mass-produced product, such as a line of cupcakes packaged and sold in stores.


The Pros and Cons of Food Processing

Food processing has a number of important benefits, such as creating products that have a much longer shelf life than raw foods. Also, food processing protects the health of the consumer and allows for easier shipment and the marketing of foods by corporations. However, there are certain drawbacks. Food processing can reduce the nutritional content of raw ingredients. For example, canning involves the use of heat, which destroys vitamin C in canned fruit. Also, certain food additives that are included during processing, such as high fructose corn syrup, can affect the health of a consumer. However, the level of added sugar can make a major difference. Small amounts of added sugar and other sweeteners, about 6 to 9 teaspoons a day or less, are not considered harmful.1


You may have read that consuming ultra-processed food intake has been associated with an increased risk for obesity and cardiovascular disease.2   https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/eating-highly-processed-foods-linked-weight-gain

Whether the association is due to the processing of the food or the nutrient composition of the processed food will require further research studies. Ultra-processed foods tend to be energy-dense, high in added sugar, sodium, fats, and low in fiber. Poti et al note that there are ultra-processed foods with favorable nutrient profiles such as whole-grain bread and unsweetened breakfast cereals.3 The best advice until further research settles this issue would be to choose unprocessed or minimally processed foods high in nutrient density whenever possible.

1 Sugar and Carbohydrates. American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HealthyDietGoals/Sugars-and-Carbohydrates_UCM_303296_Article.jsp#. Updated April 17, 2018. Accessed June 11, 2019.

2 Collins, F.Ultra-Processed Diet Leads to Extra Calories, Weight Gain. NIH Director’s Blog. May 21, 2019. Accessed June 11, 2019. https://directorsblog.nih.gov/2019/05/21/ultra-processed-diet-leads-to-extra-calories-weight-gain/

3 Poti JM, Braga B, Qin B. Ultra-processed Food Intake and Obesity: What Really Matters for Health-Processing or Nutrient Content?. Curr Obes Rep. 2017;6(4):420–431. DOI:10.1007/s13679-017-0285-4. Accessed June 11, 2019.

Granola bars stacked on grocery store shelves.
Figure 14.5.1 Granola bars stacked on grocery store shelves.
By under_volcano on Flicker CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike)


Food Additives

If you examine the label for a processed food product, it is not unusual to see a long list of added ingredients. These natural or synthetic substances are food additives and there are more than three hundred used during food processing today. The FDA maintains a database of nearly 4, 000 substances that may be added to foods.  Food additives are introduced in the processing stage for a variety of reasons. Some control acidity and alkalinity, while others enhance the color or flavor of food. Some additives stabilize food and keep it from breaking down, while others add body or texture. Many are used to prevent foodborne illness.1,2

1 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. What are food additives? https://www.eatright.org/food/vitamins-and-supplements/nutrient-rich-foods/what-are-food-additives. Updated August 16, 2018. Accessed June 11, 2019.

2 U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Overview of Food Additives. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-ingredients-packaging/overview-food-ingredients-additives-colors#types. Updated April 2010. Accessed June 11, 2019.

Table 14.5.1 List of some common food additives and their uses:

A table showing different food additives, and why they are added
Additive Reason for Adding
Beta-carotene Adds artificial coloring to food
Caffeine Acts as a stimulant
Citric acid Increases tartness to prevent food from becoming rancid
Dextrin Thickens gravies, sauces, and baking mixes
Gelatin Stabilizes, thickens, or texturizes food
Modified food starch Keeps ingredients from separating and prevents lumps
MSG Enhances flavor in a variety of foods
Pectin Gives candies and jams a gel-like texture
Polysorbates Blends oil and water and keep them from separating
Soy lecithin Emulsifies and stabilizes chocolate, margarine, and other items
Sulfites Prevent discoloration in dried fruits
Xanthan gum Thickens, emulsifies, and stabilizes dairy products and dressings


The Pros and Cons of Food Additives

The FDA works to protect the public from potentially dangerous additives. Passed in 1958, the Food Additives Amendment states that a manufacturer is responsible for demonstrating the safety of an additive before it can be approved. The Delaney Clause that was added to this legislation prohibits the approval of any additive found to cause cancer in animals or humans. However, most additives are considered to be “generally recognized as safe,” a status that is determined by the FDA and referred to as GRAS.

Food additives are typically included in the processing stage to improve the quality and consistency of a product. Many additives also make items more “shelf-stable,” meaning they will last a lot longer on store shelves and can generate more profit for store owners. Additives can also help to prevent spoilage that results from changes in temperature, damage during distribution, and other adverse conditions. In addition, food additives can protect consumers from exposure to rancid products and foodborne illnesses.

“Because of the inherent limitations of science, FDA can never be absolutely certain of the absence of any risk from the use of any substance. Therefore, FDA must determine – based on the best science available – if there is a reasonable certainty of no harm to consumers when an additive is used as proposed.”3

Food additives aren’t always beneficial, however. Some substances have been associated with certain diseases if consumed in large amounts. For example, the FDA estimates that sulfites can cause allergic reactions in 1 percent of the general population and in 3-10%  percent of asthmatics.3,4

3 U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Overview of Food Additives. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-ingredients-packaging/overview-food-ingredients-additives-colors#types. Updated April 2010. Accessed June 11, 2019.

4 Vally H, Misso NL. Adverse reactions to the sulphite additives. Gastroenterol Hepatol Bed Bench. 2012;5(1):16–23.


key takeaways

  • Examine the pros and cons of food processing.



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Nutrition 100 Nutritional Applications for a Healthy Lifestyle Copyright © by Lynn Klees and Alison Borkowska is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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