Myths About Food Processing

Happy Saturday, everyone! I am most certainly not sure how January has zipped by so quickly, but are you excited for February? There are so many significant national days and weeks in February besides Valentine’s Day and Presidents Day, such as Black History Month, National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, Groundhog Day, National Pizza Day (yesterday), Singles Awareness Day, you get the idea. Right now is the conclusion of National Pride in Food Service Week, and I could not think of a better time to talk about Food Science!

Last September, I enrolled in my dream field of study and work at my dream school, which served as a major life chapter for me. Ever since, I’ve embraced learning about all kinds of components of Food Science, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of what there is to offer! While studying about Food Science and what occurs in the field, I discovered that there are several misconceptions that most consumers, like you and me, often hold about the food industry along with food processing. Figuratively, most of us aren’t food scientists, so we don’t necessarily know the constituents behind the way food and food products are created for selling.

Upon learning about these myths, I’ll admit that I gained some sympathy for the food industry. In a way, it is constantly being battered by those who are extremely nit-picky about where their food comes from, the quality of their food, the nutritive values in their food, etc. Unfortunately, with some very unethical corporations and practices that go on in certain food processing and manufacturing headquarters, the regulations and the realities of the food industry are easily overshadowed.

Luckily, this post is all about shedding some light on the actualities of certain misconceptions that most people have or once had about food processing. In fact, I used to believe these myths for a very long time myself! But like I said, we’re not all food scientists, so we shouldn’t be expected to know absolutely everything. However, with these little debunks, you’ll be more knowledgeable about the food science industry, and maybe next time you go to a grocery store and pick up a package of food, you’ll view it from a different perspective!

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  • MYTH #1: Any form of food “processing” degrades the nutritional value of the food.
    • While describing foods, most people use “processed” and “refined” interchangeably. I’ve been just as guilty of doing so as I have with the words “sweet potatoes” and “yams”. Any method that has been imposed on a food that somehow changes the utmost original form of the food is processing. Wash a strawberry. Peel and mash a sweet potato. Cut a head of broccoli. Bake tofu or fry an egg. All of these basic cooking techniques are forms of food processing! Think about it: our Paleolithic ancestors were not aware of the bacteria and the dirt on berries–they would just pick them off of the branches and eat them. However, take two carrots from the same garden, but wash only one of them. Would you rather eat the dirty carrot or the clean one? Anyhow, it is true that some processing methods such as deep-frying, breading, or heating certain foods do decrease nutritional value, it’s not to say that all food processing applications are unhealthy.
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  • MYTH #2: Preservatives and additives are detrimental for health.
    • While it is absolutely true that preservatives and additives can cause some very undesirable symptoms, they are necessary to include in food products for so many reasons. They increase shelf-life by maintaining appearance, flavor, smell, nutrition, and appeal, hence many grocery store chains can sell products for a lot longer and spend less money on restock. Naturally sourced preservatives include sugar, salt, vinegar, alcohol, citrus acid, and naturally occurring antioxidants are much less harmful than artificially sourced preservatives such as benzoates, BHA, caramel colors, carrageenan, nitrates, nitrites, etc. If you are more than sure that additives and preservatives cause you a lot of physiological trouble, then continue to read labels carefully, get to know the source of your food, and even start making your own at home, such as nut milks, sprouted legumes, and garden produce.
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  • MYTH #3: Research studies about certain foods are reliable.
    • Unfortunately, there are certain research studies where you have to read between the lines. Who funded the studies? What were the conditions of the test groups? Did the conductors miss any variables or placebos that possibly skewed results? What kind of study was conducted? For example, there are plenty of published studies that claim that Splenda is safe, GMOs are A-okay, soy is unhealthy, all saturated fat is deadly, sugar is sugar is sugar, etc. Yet, how many of these statements do we actually believe to be true? It’s still important to look at all labels, get to know the companies of your products, and research plentifully before blindly going with the current.
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  • MYTH #4: Food processing started in the Industrial Revolution.
    • Contrary to popular belief, food processing actually began way before the Industrial Revolution! If anything, some food processes were invented in the B.C. era when our ancestors dehydrated food and cured meat with salt as a means of food preservation. Of course, the amount of methods for processing and preservation expanded immensely by the Agricultural Era and the Industrial Revolution. Again, any means applied to a certain food that alters the original composition of that same food is a process.
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  • MYTH #5: All kinds of processed foods are bad for you.
    • The majority of people who label themselves as “processed food-free eaters” will avoid boxed doughnuts, cookies, potato chips, candy bars, and frozen meals, but will stock up on rolled oats, roasted almonds, spiralized sweet potatoes, or dried mulberries. But guess what? ALL of these foods have been processed in some way–obviously, certain foods are worse for you than others. Choosing whether or not a food is “bad” for you will all depend on your personal outlook and knowledge.
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  • MYTH #6: It doesn’t matter where you store your food in the fridge.
    • Sorry to make things more complicated, but yes, it does–at least for optimal freshness. The shelves are progressively colder as the height increases, but just because the more perishable the food does not mean the higher it has to be. Certain harmful spores and pathogens can actually thrive off of extremely cold temperature, such as on fruits and vegetables, which is why it is recommended to store fruits and vegetables closer to the bottom of the fridge, versus leftovers and dairy products at the top. It’s also important to keep an eye on dates, seal, wrap, or cover all containers to prevent any cross contamination that could potentially induce microorganism growth.
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  • MYTH #7: Everything is regulated by super strict safety procedures.
    • Well, yes and no, depending on the context of safety. According to the FDA, for every 10 grams of allspice, the food scientists are allowed to leave a single strand of rodent hair. Alternatively, there can be more than thirty traces of insects per 100 grams of peanut butter–not to say that anybody would eat that much peanut butter in one sitting (well, maybe I’d be the first but…). However, for the most part, the FDA does hold relatively strict codes regarding food sanitation, therefore we’re in pretty safe hands. Obviously, certain brands are much more conscientious about the quality of their food products and the equipment they use unlike most mass production facilities, so it’s important to read labels, do your research, and find companies that you truly care about and want to support. However, for the most part, rest assured that none of the food products that are sold will kill you–at least not nutrition-wise.
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  • MYTH #8: Food scientists are corrupt and only care about making money.
    • Definitely definitely FALSE. Food manufacturers and other occupations regarding marketing, business and/or retail can indeed engage in some corruption, but they should not be intertwined with what food scientists aim for. Depending on the particular position, most food scientists prioritize safety, quality, and/or efficiency over anything else.

What are your thoughts on food processing? Ever fallen victim to one of these myths?

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