Food processing has been in use since humans discovered fire and tools to cook, squeeze fruits, or grind grains. Recent food processing technologies are often extensions of these original food processing methods and helped create products such as canned vegetables, juices, and jellies and jams. In the 21st century, innovations in food processing allowed manufacturers to address the demand for natural and easily identifiable ingredients to replace the synthetic versions, for example, vitamins and colorants from natural sources, for use in food products.
As we look ahead, research to maintain or enhance the nutritional value of food and its effects on human health, as well as how the food is grown and distributed, will drive new processing technologies through the remainder of the 21st century.
Food Processing and Processed Food
Food processing is the use of methods and techniques involving equipment, energy, and tools to transform agricultural products such as grains, meats, vegetables, fruits, and milk into food ingredients or finished food products.
Processed food is a different term, where a food product has been changed in some way through a combination of ingredients together with processing steps to make the food safe to eat, shelf-stable for future use, convenient to use (e.g., microwaveable dinners), tasty/palatable, (e.g., a milk chocolate bar), and/or more nutritious (e.g., breakfast cereals fortified with vitamins).
It’s important to note that while all processed foods use food processing, not all food processing leads to processed foods. For example, the process of washing apples before packaging for consumption does not lead to what would be deemed a processed food.
Over the last few decades, many processed food products that are unhealthful (high in saturated fat, sugar, and/or salt), convenient, and often inexpensive have led to consumer confusion, misperceptions, and criticism about food processing.
Food processing is essential in transforming agricultural feedstocks into the food we consume.
To learn more about food processing, including the technologies, benefits, and impacts to food, check out our toolkit. This page, dedicated to food processing, provides foundational insights about the role of food processing and aims to address misperception related to food processing and processed food.
About the Authors
Bryan Hitchcock is the senior director, food chain, and executive director of IFT's Global Food Traceability Center.
Farida Mohamedshah, MS, CNS, is director of nutrition science, food laws, and regulations at IFT.