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17.7: Food Processing

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    Learning Objectives

    • Learn about 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 the 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]

    fig 17.7.1.jpg
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Processed food. Image by Dean Hochman / CC BY 2.0.

    Food Additives

    If you examine the label for a processed food product, it is not unusual to see a long list of added materials. These natural or synthetic substances are food additives and there are more than three hundred used during food processing today. The most popular additives are benzoates, nitrites, sulfites, and sorbates, which prevent molds and yeast from growing on food.[2] 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. Table \(\PageIndex{1}\) lists some common food additives and their uses:

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): Food Additives.
    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

    Source: Chemical Cuisine: Learn about Food Additives. Center for Science in the Public Interest. Published 2012. Accessed January 20, 2018.

    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.

    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 5 percent of asthmatics. Similarly, the additive monosodium glutamate, which is commonly known as MSG, may cause headaches, nausea, weakness, difficulty breathing, rapid heartbeat, and chest pain in some individuals.[3]


    1. Sugar and Carbohydrates. American Heart Association. Updated April 20, 2017. Accessed January 4, 2018.
    2. The Dangers of Food Additives. How Stuff Works. -additives.htm. Accessed October 5, 2011.
    3. The Issues: Additives. Sustainable Table. Accessed October 10, 2011.

    Contributors and Attributions

    This page titled 17.7: Food Processing is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by The University of Hawaiʻi via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.