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Minimum Processing in (processed) Food

Updated: Apr 14, 2021

A recent exchange of emails with a newly introduced customer to our products brought me to write back to explain what we mean by minimum processing. After all, by definition, what we do it processing- so what is the difference? What makes food products un-processed or minimally processed and others ultra-processed? Both categories could have attributes such as gluten-free, plant-based, high in protein, high in fibre and perhaps other attributes. Maybe the most critical question is, why is it important? In other words, and to put it bluntly- so what?

This pleasant exchange brought me to think that perhaps it is not always apparent what we mean when we say “minimally processed”. I wanted to share with you some of these notes and clarifications.

Let me start by saying that the terms “minimal processing” and “ultra-processed” foods are borrowed from Nova Foods Classification System; according to NOVA, there are four food groups that characterise the level of processing:

1. Unprocessed and minimally processed foods (group 1)

2. Processed Culinary ingredients (group 2)

3. Processed Foods (groups 3)

4. Ultra-Processed (group 4)

I will expand on Group 1 and 4.

What is Minimally processed Food? (group 1)

According to Nova Food Classification System, unprocessed (or natural) foods are the edible parts of plants (such as fruit, leaves, stems, seeds, roots, also fungi, algae and water, after separation from nature).

Minimally processed foods are natural foods altered by methods that include removal of inedible or unwanted parts, and also processes that include drying, crushing, grinding, powdering, fractioning, filtering, roasting, boiling, non-alcoholic fermentation, pasteurisation, chilling, freezing, placing in containers, and vacuum packaging.

These methods and processes are designed to preserve natural foods, to make them suitable for storage. Or else to make them safe or edible or more pleasant to consume. Many unprocessed or minimally processed foods are prepared and cooked as dishes or meals in kitchens at home or in restaurants or canteens in combination with processed culinary ingredients and sometimes with some processed foods.

Unprocessed and minimally processed foods vary in energy density and in their content and balance of fats, carbohydrates, proteins, and their fractions, and in vitamins, minerals and other bioactive compounds. No single type of food can provide human beings with all the necessary energy and essential nutrients in adequate balance.

Ultra-Processed Food (group 4)

Ultra-processed foods are formulations of ingredients. Most of the exclusive industrial use, typically created by a series of industrial techniques and processes (hence ‘ultra-processed’). Processes enabling the manufacture of ultra-processed foods involve several steps and different industries. It starts with the fractioning of whole foods into substances including sugars, oils and fats, proteins, starches and fibre. The substances are of obtained from a few high-yield plant foods (such as corn, wheat, soy, cane or beet) and pureeing or grinding animal carcasses, usually from intensive livestock farming.

Some of these substances are then submitted to hydrolysis, or hydrogenation, or other chemical modifications. Subsequent processes involve the assembly of unmodified and extrusion, moulding and pre-frying. Colours, flavours, emulsifiers and other additives are frequently added to make the final product palatable or hyper-palatable. Sophisticated and attractive packaging is used, usually made from synthetic materials.

Ingredients characteristic of ultra-processed foods is either food substances of no or rare culinary use or else classes of additives whose function is to make the final product sellable, palatable and often hyper-palatable.

Food substances of no or rare culinary use, employed in the manufacture of ultra-processed foods, include varieties of sugars (fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, ‘fruit juice concentrates’, invert sugar, maltodextrin, dextrose, lactose), modified oils (hydrogenated or interesterified oils and sources of protein (hydrolysed proteins, soya protein isolate, gluten, casein, why protein and ‘mechanically separated meat’).

Classes of additives used only in the manufacture of ultra-processed foods are flavours, flavour enhancers, colours, emulsifiers, emulsifying salts, artificial sweeteners, thickeners, and foaming, anti-foaming, bulking, carbonation, gelling and glazing agents. All of them, most notably, flavours and colours either disguise unpleasant sensory properties created by ingredients, processes or packaging used in the manufacture of ultra-processed foods, or give the final product intense sensory properties, especially attractive to see, taste, smell and/or touch, or both.

Generally, the practical way to identify if a product is ultra-processed is to check to see if its list of ingredients contains at least one item characteristic of the ultra-processed food group. There are either food substances never or rarely used in (domestic) kitchens or classes of additives whose function is to make the final product palatable or appealing.

By now, without any resemblance to their original wholefood state, food substances not used in (domestic) kitchens appear at the beginning or the middle of the lists of ingredients of ultra-processed foods. These include hydrolysed proteins, soya protein isolate, gluten, casein, whey protein, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, ‘fruit juice concentrate’, invert sugar, maltodextrin, dextrose, lactose, soluble or insoluble fibre, hydrogenated or unesterified oil. The presence in the list of ingredients of one or more of these food substances identifies a product as ultra-processed.

Classes of additives exclusively used in ultra-processed foods are at the end of the lists of ingredients, together with other additives. These include flavours, flavour enhancers, colours, emulsifiers, emulsifying salts, artificial sweeteners, thickeners, anti-foaming, bulking, carbonating, foaming, gelling and glazing agents. Any example of these additive classes, as shown on ingredients lists, also identifies a product as ultra-processed.

Information in ingredients labels is not entirely standardised in all countries. But some of the most frequently used classes of additives such as flavours, flavour enhancers, colours and emulsifiers are usually easy to identify. They may be expressed as a class, such as flavourings or natural flavours or artificial flavours; names are followed by their class, such as ‘monosodium glutamate (flavour enhancer)’, or ‘caramel colour’, or ‘soy lecithin or Methylcellulose as emulsifier’. Other classes of additives commonly used in the manufacture of ultra-processed foods include sweeteners like aspartame, cyclamate or compounds derived from stevia.

Why is it important?

Although there is a significant environmental implication to ultra-processing, I discussed in one of my previous blogs, the main concern that NOVA’s manifestation is the health factor, mainly the impact of the Ultra-Processed Food on Non-Communicable Diseases.

In their paper titled “Ultra-processed foods, diet quality, and health using the NOVA classification system”, the writers discuss the impact of Ultra-processed Food on adults, children, and adolescents.

Various report and research studies associate Ultra-processed Food and:

· Obesity

· Cardiovascular diseases

· Diabetes

· Cancer

· Depression

· Gastrointestinal disorder

· Frailty syndrome, and

· A general higher level of mortality.

Syndian’s Role

Since the early days, and before our encounter with any food classification system, we highly valued manufacturing food products relying on natural ingredients. The NOVA Food Classification System encounter gave us further scientific validation and a better understanding of our history and future direction. Syndian will continue aspiring to manufacture minimally processed foods based on wholefood plant-based gluten-free ingredients, thus become a part of the solution rather than the problem.

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