Can You Count on Fish Fingers? The Role of Processed Foods in Global Food Security

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When I told my father back in the 1970’s that I was going to use my science “A” levels to study Food Technology, he assumed like many others that I was going to study “cooking”.  He considered that I was throwing away a better and potentially more satisfying career in medicine. Several decades later and with a PhD in Food Science and Technology in my pocket I can honestly say that I have absolutely no regrets. The scientific rigour required for these disciplines is equal to any other life science and whilst it is true that an appreciation of food in all its contexts is complementary to the science, it is certainly not essential.  More important attributes include the ability to work and communicate across many disciplines including those of engineering, microbiology, chemistry, biology, psychology, marketing, economics, nutrition, medicine and public health, to name just a few. This is what makes the everyday life of a food technologist extremely varied and exciting.

It is true to say however that food technologists have been viewed with suspicion in the last few years by both the public and the media, mainly for their association with processed foods. Unfortunately this comes from a huge lack of knowledge on the part of the general public and the media, who often rely on rhetoric rather than scientific evidence for the headlines and stories which fan the flames of public criticism. This has led to a growing number of people who believe that “clean eating”, by eliminating processed foods in their diets, is the way to go for good health.  These diets are proving to be decidedly unhealthy, leading to malnutrition and anorexia for many. It is clear that more needs to be done to communicate how food technologists have positively influenced the safety and nutritional profile of foods we all eat and the nutritional importance of processed foods in our diet.

The Importance of Processed Foods in Global Food Security and Nutrition   

Processed foods are a vital part of the global food supply providing both food and nutrition security for populations around the world. A few interesting realities about processed foods and consumers’ perception:

1.       It is scientifically evident that it is possible to meet dietary guidelines for good health with the selection of nutrient-dense foods whether “processed” or not.

2.       Modern food processing includes the basic steps that have been used domestically for centuries to preserve foods – but just on a larger industrial scale. The consequences on food quality, nourishment and safety are largely the same. Most consumers are unacquainted with these facts and this allows some to demonise all processed foods or to be very selective about the foods they consider to be processed. For example, some consumers are unaware that bread, cheese, wine and beer are among some of the most highly processed foods in food technology terms but if asked, would probably consider these as not processed at all.

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Cheese is among the most processed foods in food technology terms

3.       Processed foods are extremely important for public health.  Health, nutrition and food professionals dedicated to meeting the food and nutritional needs of people around the globe recognize that fresh, local foods cannot meet all nutritional requirements.  Food processing is necessary.  National and global goals for nutrition and health can only be accomplished by combining food processing with social and economic reforms. Analysis of dietary intake data in western diets does show however that some processed foods could be improved by reducing calories, added sugars, saturated fat and sodium. 

Those who demonise all processed foods do so often from a position of ignorance of the methods used in processing and the contribution of their nutritional value in the diet of whole populations.

Reformulating Processed Food  – Bigger Influence on Dietary Change than Public Health Campaigns

I have spent a career improving the nutritional quality of processed food products and there are many ingredient- focused opportunities to be able to reduce calories, saturated fats, added sugars and sodium in many food products – a subject I have written about extensively. Another passion is communicating across the disciplines of food technology, nutrition and medicine so that the food industry and consumers understand the vital links between the disciplines and the importance of each in the process of improving population health. Understanding these links has enabled me to support a start-up food ingredient company who wished to sell a novel mineral-based salt replacer into the food manufacturing industry.

Supporting a Nutrition and Health Ingredient Company Start-up

Supporting a start-up ingredient company from a food technology standpoint is a varied and interesting task. With 90% of new products ending in failure there is increasing pressure in the industry to improve the accuracy of the research and innovation around any new ingredient.

Initially it is essential to understand the possible health benefits of the new ingredient and to determine these through clinical trials.  Human clinical trials are among the gold standard pieces of research that are expected for a new health and nutrition ingredient.  This can be a long and expensive business but this step is essential however if it is hoped that health claims can be made for the ingredient on pack. With any new health and nutrition ingredient it is important to understand the health reasons for use to gain credibility within the most appropriate food sector. Once this is established a full technical portfolio of the ingredient is required to understand the chemical, physical, microbiological and organoleptic characteristic of the product in a broad range of applications against the competitive ingredient environment.  

Once a technical and nutritional/ health portfolio exits for the ingredient, promotion to the industry is the next step. Large food manufacturing industry is very sophisticated in its research and development processes and should not be approached without a robust scientific portfolio. A traditional commodity sales approach is not effective for this type of ingredient – but needs a highly technical and informed approach.

For the well-positioned food and drink manufacturer the health and wellness market remains very dynamic, offering excellent opportunities for growth but these companies often need help to communicate the benefits to the consumer. So it is also important to understand who the major influencers and decision makers are within a food company and how to approach these individuals with a clear and communicable health benefit.  This often means contacting and influencing nutritionists, other food technologists, industry support organisations, food regulators, processing engineers and medical experts.  This is where support from a PhD food technologist proves beneficial and can help gain credibility for a start-up organisation. An experienced food technologist can influence at different management levels and disciplines within an organisation.

Once the product is being used in new product development programmes it is important to be able to provide a comprehensive technical service follow-up to aid the recipe development work, any processing issues as well as regulatory, labelling and nutritional claims support. 

Although challenging, this type of work can be extremely rewarding and often results in new intellectual property and sales for the start-up and new professional networks for the food technologist.

Processed Foods – Reducing Sodium in Our Diets

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Many types of food technology are available in the industry to reduce salt in processed foods

One of the best examples of the role of food technologists in improving public health via changes in processed foods is sodium reduction in the United Kingdom (UK). UK food manufacturing has done an excellent job in reducing salt in the diet by 15% in the last decade.  This has been a voluntary reduction by the food industry to reduce added salt in processed foods. Many types of food technology are available to the industry to achieve this, including ingredient-based and technology-based solutions.  The UK are ahead of the global game in many ways and the strategies that are being used in the UK are being copied around the world. Although there is still some way to go for the industry to reach the 6g/day target, when salt reduction was considered by the Institute of Fiscal Studies in their 2014 report they suggests that:

 “Product reformulation was by far the most important factor driving the reduction in the saltiness of grocery purchases.”

Processed Foods – The Future Challenges

In the future it may be that food technologists will have to consider more complex issues around nutrition based on the fact that food components interact in complex ways to give rise to emergent properties of diets that are not explicable at the level of individual chemical parts or individual ingredients. For example, despite the recommendations for diet and lifestyle intervention, global obesity rates are still rising. Conventional nutritional advice on avoiding obesity is being called into question and the obesity model is being revised to consider these food interactions and includes the role of gastrointestinal microbiota. This represents a huge revolution in the way we consider tackling obesity in populations and associated cardiometabolic disease and will be reflected in new product development challenges for processed foods.

Emerging food processing technologies hold substantial promise to promote health and wellness of consumers including reducing calorie intake, enhancing gut health, reducing salt intake,  improving food safety, reducing food waste, reducing allergenic foods, promoting fresh but stable foods and producing  age-specific products.  These food technologies include ingredient, packaging and process solutions.  What they all promise however are improvements in health and well-being for all of us and I look forward to the challenge.

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About Author

Dr. Helen Mitchell is an independent, accomplished consultant to the food and pharmaceutical industry offering outstanding presentation, communication and team management skills. She is committed to the effective communication across the disciplines of food science, food technology, nutrition and medicine. She is an expert in replacement ingredients for sugar, salt and fat and the development of "healthier" food products. Dr. Mitchell has a PhD in Food Science and Technology from the University of Reading and has published in many prestigious peer-reviewed journals and food science/technology handbooks. Based in the UK, she offers science, regulatory and technology support for food and pharmaceutical business development including small businesses and start-ups.

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