Food Processing & Good Nutrition
Written by James Collier BSc (Hons), Registered Nutritionist, who devised the Huel formula. He has over 25 years of experience working in nutrition and dietetics, including 7 years as a Clinical Dietician in the NHS. Covering an array of clinical areas, he worked with people with a wide range of ailments and food intolerances. He also has an Honours Degree in Nutrition with Dietetics: read more about James here.
The term ‘food processing’ could be described as ‘the transformation of raw ingredients by physical or chemical means into food’. Food processing combines raw food ingredients either through physical mechanisms or through the inclusion of additives to produce marketable food products that can be easily prepared and served by the consumer. However, the extent as to which foods can be processed can vary hugely and, unless you’re consuming a food in its 100% natural form, you are consuming a processed food of some type.
What’s a Whole Food?
A whole food is one that is consumed in its natural form without any physical change or additives whatsoever. Truly whole foods would be consumed in their raw form: like fruit and salad vegetables. However, the term does usually allow for minimal processing like cooking and basic milling as long as there’s no combining of foods and nothing taken away. Examples of whole foods include unpolished grains, beans, fruit, nuts, vegetables, meat, eggs and non-homogenised milk.
Is there Anything Wrong with Processed Foods?
We process foods every day when we prepare meals for ourselves, yet we frequently hear the term ‘processed food’ bandied about in a negative fashion, suggesting that processed foods are in some way inferior to their unprocessed counterparts. It’s true that a large amount of processed foods contain unwanted food additives that may not be ideal for our bodies. But think about it, looking at the definition above again, even foods like canned fruit in its own juice is a processed food; the process of separating the edible fruit from the skin and putting it into an airtight can is a ‘process’. There’s nothing wrong with this, indeed, the canning process helps to retain some labile micronutrients.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have ready-meals in plastic trays containing preservatives and a quick blast in the microwave oven gives us a hot meal. And we have jelly sweets and other confectionery laden with sugars, colours and flavourings. Neither of these are nutritionally particularly desirable.
Benefits of Food Processing
There are numerous benefits of food processing. These include:
- Food safety - food processes remove harmful bacteria and toxins.
- Preservation - food processing enables the shelf-life of foods to be extended hugely. This allows for better transport of food, convenience and choice. Man has been preserving food since prehistoric times with processes like the addition of salt to meat.
- Nutrient conservation - some nutrients are inhibited when food is in its whole form, but are released when the food is processed. For example, grinding or soaking of flaxseeds breaks them down so the body can digest the omega-3 fats.
- Palatability - food processing helps enhance the taste of food and can improve the mouthfeel.
- Attractiveness - foods can be processed to be presented in an appealing way.
- Benefits to people on special diets - food processing allows diabetics, coeliacs and people with food allergies or other conditions which mean they have to follow a specific diet a less restrictive and more entertaining food selection.
- Boosted nutrition - food processing can also add extra nutrients, eg the fortification of breakfast cereals.
Drawbacks of Food Processing
There can be some nutritional losses during some methods of processing, especially of some of the labile micronutrients like potassium and vitamin C.
Some food additives may have links to causing adverse reactions and there is a lot of negativity about E numbers. There are particular concerns regarding some food colours and preservatives causing urticaria and hyperactivity implying that they have almost drug-like effects! There is legislation regarding some artificial colourants and preservatives (including benzoates) (FSA 2007). Indeed, some people are affected so much that they follow benzoate-free or azo-free diets.
During blending and mixing of food, there is a risk of cross contamination with other foods: this can be a potential danger to people with food allergies. Plus processing requires strict regulation and, in some cases, unwanted ingredients may slip through (eg the horse meat scandal). There is also a risk of contaminants from machinery like plastic and metals; so there’s strict legislation in place to ensure that the risk of contamination is minimal.
Raw meat may be a whole food, but as soon as anything is added, it’s processed. Meats are cured to drastically increase their shelf life and this is very successful in preventing food poisoning and bacterial spoilage, but there are links that the sodium nitrites formed during the curing process can form nitrosamines with links to cancers (Paik et al 2001).
Indeed, the overcooking of some meats is also undesirable. Frying in some oils can lead to the fats in the oils oxidising which makes them more atherosclerotic (plaque-forming) and increases risk of cardiovascular diseases and some cancers. Plus when some meats and fish are cooked to extreme temperatures through excessive frying or in heating in an open flame, heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can be formed which have been shown to be mutogenic and can increase the risk of cancers.
Favoured Processed Foods
- 100% whole grains, like oats, barley, buckwheat, quinoa
- Pre-chopped fruit and vegetables
- Canned fruit and vegetables
- Frozen fruit, vegetables and meat
- Fresh fruit juice
- Nut and seed butters without added sugar and salt
- Milk (even soy and almond milk are processed)
- Veggie burgers and tofu
- Wild canned salmon (the bones are a great source of calcium)
- Plain Greek yoghurt
- 100% whole grain or sprouted grain bread (with no added sugar and whole grains as the first ingredient)
- Soaked beans
- Ground seeds (eg flaxseeds)
- High fibre breakfast cereals
Unfavoured Processed Foods
- Confectionery items - sweets and chocolate
- Most fast foods from take-aways - burgers, fries, Southern fried chicken, doner kebabs, fish and chips, pizzas, hot dogs
- Crisps and savoury snacks
- Soda pop and cordial drinks
- Artificially coloured cheese
- Cakes, biscuits, cookies, crackers, etc
- Dried foods that you reconstitute with water like packet soups and tubbed noodles
- Frozen burgers, sausages and chicken pieces with added fillers
- Pre-prepared frozen and vacuum meals - even those classed as ‘Healthy Eating’!
- Low fibre breakfast cereals
Powdered food might sound like a new concept but, in fact, humans have been powdering food for over 11,000 years. Back then, man first realised that by grinding and milling grains using a quern stone he could turn corn into flour and would dramatically increase the shelf life and make food easier to transport.
Huel could be described as nutritionally complete flour. Huel may not be a whole food but 97% of Huel is made from six main food ingredients: oats, brown rice, pea, flaxseed, sunflower and coconut which have been processed but the processing is kept to a minimum. In the case of the oats (the largest ingredient) they are taken from the field, then milled, and that is it. All the nutritional values are based on the ingredients once processed, so what you see is what you get. With the brown rice and the pea, the protein has been extracted to provide the amino acids you need. The flaxseeds are merely ground and the sunflower and coconut have had their fats removed to provide the essential fats. All the ingredients in Huel are then blended thoroughly and put into the pouches ready for you to reap the benefits.
Don't forget, for many years we have been feeding powdered food to the most precious group of our society - our babies and toddlers - with huge benefits to their growth. Powdered milk is extremely common and accepted. Also the most body conscious and possibly knowledgeable part of society - bodybuilders - consume powdered food daily; they drink powdered protein, carbs, etc.
So while Huel is a processed food, most of the solid foods even the most health conscious among us consume on a daily basis are also; Huel is processed only enough to give you what’s required and there are no unnecessary additives.
Below is a short list of undesirable food additives that you will not find in Huel
- No trans fats
- No monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- No high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- No artificial preservatives - e.g. butylated hydroxyanisole, benzoates
- No artificial colourants - eg azo dyes
- No added sugar
- No gelatin - from skin and bones of animals
- No pink slime
- No carbon monoxide
- No ammonia
- No castoreum - from near the anus of a beaver
- No carmine - boiled insects, used for red dye in food
- Paik et al (2001). The epidemiological enigma of gastric cancer rates in the US: was grandmother's sausage the cause?, Int J Epid 30(1): 181-182.