The word “processed” has become something of a slur.
Say “processed food” and most of us picture unhealthy, cheap junk. Fresh food straight from the garden or the field is good. Once we’ve put it through a processing plant or a laboratory, we’ve removed its halo qualities and added a bunch of bad ones. That means meat substitutes are no better than junk food.
But this perspective is short-sighted. We’re not going to feed billions a nutritious diet sustainably without food processing. The growing backlash against processing is one that neither people nor the planet can afford.
The benefits of processed food
Processed food is more than Coca-Cola, Dairy Milk chocolate, and ready meals. Most plant and animal products go through some form of processing to convert them into something that we can—and want to—eat. We mill grain into flour to make bread. We butcher and debone animals to get meat. We pasteurize milk.
Processed foods have brought us countless benefits, many of which we quickly forget. Iodized salt is just one example; iodine deficiencies used to be common across the world, leading to increased risks of stillbirths and miscarriages, significant reductions in IQ, and reduced cognitive development. Most of the world now consumes salt with iodine added, and many countries have eliminated this deficiency. By adding nutrients to food, we’ve been able to address a number of other micronutrient deficiencies.
We’ve been able to preserve food and increase its shelf life, reducing food waste. We’ve reduced the spread of food-borne diseases. Those with food allergies and intolerances can now eat a balanced diet. We don’t need to spend the day preparing food—this has been particularly important for the educational and career development of women. Last but not least: taste. Our shelves are now lined with great-tasting foods.
Of course, when people talk about “processed” food they’re often talking about ultra-processed food (UPF). These snacks and prepared meals are designed to have a longer shelf life and be more convenient and palatable. Corporations work hard to find the “Goldilocks” flavor profile we can’t resist by adding sugar and fat to make food as tasty as possible. Many describe these finely tuned combinations as addictive.
It’s true that increased consumption of ultra-processed food has been linked to poor health outcomes. It has been associated with lower consumption of essential nutrients, such as vitamins C, D, and B12. The more of these foods we eat, the more likely we are to be overweight or obese. This puts us at higher risk of health conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. Ultra-processed foods are easy to overconsume.
The problem with most UPFs is that they are higher in calories, sugar, and fat. And they’re lower in protein and fiber, the nutrients that keep us full.
But this isn’t inherent to food processing itself. What matters is what corporations add to our food. They can create healthier foods if they want to—or if we demand it.
The growing backlash against meat substitutes
One area where I see the biggest backlash against processing is with meat substitutes.
These products try to emulate the experience of meat and include plant proteins such as soy-based sausages; Impossible and Beyond Meat burgers; proteins made from fermentation, such as Quorn, and lab-grown meat.