Processed Foods: More than Meets the Label

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Navigating the aisles of a modern grocery store, you’ll expose a plot twist: The labels consumers trust may not always reflect what’s inside – how it’s made or whether it’s “healthy.” For instance, labels like “all-natural” and “minimally processed” can be misleading and ambiguous. The booming plant-based sector further blurs the line with many of its perceived “healthy” options compromised by the “ultra-processed” industrial methods used to produce it. 

Today’s consumers seek healthier, sustainable, convenient and affordable options. They also want choice, even if that is simply a twist on a familiar favorite. And food companies, including giants like Kraft Heinz, understand what ingredients in their products are currently more critical to consumers than their production methods. But who can predict the future of fickle consumers?  Food processors must evolve their products to keep pace with market changes without compromising on flavor, quality, stability and cost. This evolution is not just for meeting consumer expectations, but also for effectively addressing growing global food needs. It’s time to rethink the perspective on processed foods. 

Understanding Processed Foods

In the 1990s, Brazilian researchers led by Carlos Monteiro found that obesity rates were rising among children as more households purchased packaged foods, such as sodas, cookies, instant noodles and snacks, instead of staple ingredients like sugar, cooking oil, rice, and beans. 

The trend isn’t unique to Brazil. Observational data on obesity in the U.S., shows that these foods account for 67 percent of the calories consumed by American children and teenagers. Dr. Monteiro coined “ultra-processed foods,” or UPFs, to describe this food category and developed a system to categorize food and ingredients. This system, called NOVA, is used by researchers around the world.

The NOVA System

This system places foods into four main categories:

  1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods. These are fresh or frozen vegetables and fruits, legumes, butchered meat and poultry, fish, eggs, milk, plain yogurt, rice, coffee, herbs, spices, and some flours.
  2. Processed culinary ingredients. Cooking oils, sugar, honey, vinegar, salt and butter, for example.
  3. Processed foods. Take something from Category 1 and combine it with Category 2, modify it through simple processing such as preserving, canning, bottling, or baking – often adding preservatives for shelf stability – and you have a processed food. For example, most cheeses, “bakery” breads, canned vegetables, canned beans, and canned fish are processed foods. 
  4. Ultra-processed foods (UPFs). UPFs are made using industrial methods and ingredients you may not find in your kitchen, such as high-fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated oils. UPFs often contain colorants, flavorings, or emulsifiers or excessive amounts of salt. Sodas, hot dogs, candies, lunch meats, and margarine are commonly consumed UPFs. 

While the NOVA system is helpful for broad brushstrokes, it doesn’t account for the nutritional value of foods. For example, infant formulas, flavored yogurts, and, circling back, most plant-based products – all classified as UPFs – can be invaluable sources of nutrition even if the food source is more “processed.”

The NOVA system also classifies many healthy foods as UPFs simply based on how they are made. However, many foods, even ultra-processed ones, provide essential nutrition that might not be accessible otherwise. For example, wheat that is milled into flour and fortified with folic acid and iron. Or ground peanuts mixed with emulsifiers for shelf stability. Simply put: Not all processed food is “bad,” nor is unprocessed food necessarily “better.” 

Benefits of Processed Foods

Most plant and animal products undergo processing to be ready for purchase and consumption. Meat is butchered and packaged. Dairy has added vitamins, and pasteurization kills harmful bacteria. Fruits and vegetables are frozen, canned, preserved, dried, and pickled. 

But with the challenges of feeding and sustaining a growing global population, nutrient-dense foods are in high demand. Making better use of what grows on the land and in the water has fueled the rise of the plant-based market. It also supports the rise of alternative food sources, such as algae and fungi, which require processing to be edible. Processing technologies can help bridge the gap between providing safe, affordable foods and conserving natural resources. Ingredients once considered waste products are now starring players but are generally UPF’s. 

Companies, therefore, must be flexible with recipes and ingredients when faced with changing consumer tastes or preferences, sustainability concerns, as well as supply chain challenges.

The Need for Nimble

Change is inevitable, so adaptation and evolution are essential. For food processors and manufacturers, changes can manifest in various ways. Common ingredients may become scarce. New nutritional benchmarks may be established, making additional ingredients necessary. For instance, fortifying foods with folic acid became standard in the late 1990s. 

Foods may also require updates with incremental recipe changes (like reducing salt) or ingredient substitutions (using cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup). While these changes sound simple, they can become challenging manufacturing processes. Working with an engineering partner for material handling systems who can design flexible, adaptable production systems to accommodate future needs is a wise investment. 

AZO knows that change is inevitable, so advance preparation is vital. From the start, we work with our customers for “future proof” designs to allow for manufacturing flexibility, whether the need is either planned or unplanned. We want our customers to be able to modify their bulk-ingredient handling systems to allow for recipe updates or add entirely new ingredients. 

For example, a customer with a recently built factory now wants to expand its “flavor choices” due to consumer trends. This was not considered in the original design so there’s limited floor space available to add new equipment. As a result, this change will be difficult and expensive to configure. AZO would have designed the bulk material handling area differently to allow for potential new recipes, giving the customer more inherent flexibility with lower secondary investment. 

Food processing and processed foods will continue to play a dynamic role in global diets. 

Plant-based and other alternative foods challenge what is considered natural and nutritious. Creative solutions are needed to meet consumer wants and meet global food demands. AZO is an ideal partner, offering solutions that accommodate the inevitable to ensure the food industry can address the future. 

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