Understanding Food Processing: Keeping Food Safe, Nutritious and Affordable

As the mom of a toddler whose background is in nutrition, I’m always thinking about what’s in my pantry and how it’s made. One of the industry’s core tenets is that everyone deserves access to affordable, nutritious and safe food – and food processing is an essential step in ensuring our nation’s food supply continues to check those boxes.

Processing has been part of food preparation since humans started using fire to cook their meals and salt to preserve it, so it remains important to have this on the record. Every consumer deserves accurate information about food processing — what it means, why it matters, and most importantly, how it helps expand access to affordable, nutritious and safe food.

Food processing spans several methods, including turning fresh farm goods into consumable food products. Standard processing methods include refrigeration, fermentation, dehydration and the use of chemical preservatives to slow or stop the growth of certain pathogens. Processing methods that eliminate harmful bacteria extend the shelf life of food products and their vital nutrients.

Preservation is a type of processing that aids in delaying food spoilage, allowing goods to be shipped over long distances. This enables consumers without local access to farms to enjoy produce and other goods past their respective harvest season, which in turn helps create an expansive food network, improving food security nationwide.

And I’d be remiss not to highlight pasteurization, one of the most fundamental forms of processing that is an essential step for humans to safely consume and store most dairy products and a revolutionary measure at its time of inception, curbing consumer exposure to a host of foodborne illnesses from bacteria – including listeria and even typhoid fever.

Ensuring consumers have a holistic understanding of the nutritional and economic value of food processing, which guarantees that widely consumed food products contain beneficial nutrients like dietary fiber, vitamins and other similar additions is a cornerstone of our efforts. For example, countless Americans rely on cereal for an easy breakfast that is fortified with added vitamins and minerals, which improve nutrient intake and lower the risk of certain congenital disabilities. Many Americans do not consume the national recommendations for the baseline level of vitamins and minerals, but fortified cereals offer an affordable and accessible way to improve sufficient nutrient intake.

Along those same lines, baby formula is another processed food that sustains a baby’s nutrition during critical stages of their development. Food processing caters to the diverse needs of Americans of all ages when they need it most. It’s also a pivotal tool to help us combat rising food insecurity crises.

Processing is critical to items throughout the entire grocery store, not just the central aisles. Take, for example, produce – frozen options are typically less expensive, but that doesn’t mean it comes at a cost to consumers’ wellbeing. Research published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry showed comparable – and in some cases, higher – nutrient levels in frozen fruit and vegetables versus their fresh counterparts. Food processing enables consumers to make the best choice for their lives without forcing compromise across socioeconomic lines.

It’s imperative to consider the full scope and benefits of what comes with processing food and how it helps keep our food supply safe. Attempting to classify processed foods as unhealthy simply because they are processed misleads consumers and can keep them from accessing the nutrients they need at a widely accessible price. And, by having this conversation, we can help parents like me – and millions of other consumers – feel confident about the food they put on the table.

So tonight, if neither my husband nor I have the energy to cook dinner from scratch using locally sourced ingredients and would rather pull something from the pantry or freezer, we can feel good about what we put on the table for our family knowing it’s an accessible, safe and nutritious choice we made for ourselves.