Within the general public, the terms ‘food manufacturing’ and ‘food processing are usually used interchangeably.
If you dig into the professional world of food, you realize that almost every word or phrase can be turned into an inside industry jargon that will need careful thought when throwing them in sentences.
Food processing and food manufacturing are among those phrases that may sound the same but in reality, they have completely different meanings.
In summary, food processing refers to the first phase of the operations that transform raw agricultural products into ingredients without significantly altering their composition. Food manufacturing on the other hand involves operations that make use of processed ingredients to produce complex food products with a totally different physical and chemical composition.
I will give examples and more information as we go on, so pull a chair and let’s deconstruct these food jargons.
I will start with the process of food processing because that is where the chain of value addition in food begins.
In layman’s term, we can say food processing is taking whole foods through some processes to increase their value to consumers.
Food processors can also alter natural foods for their own benefits as we shall see later.
If we had to eat all the foods in their original form from the fields, we would probably be still in the forests competing with our primate cousins for food.
We actually used to do this until the discovery of fire which taught us to process our foods for better taste.
What is Considered Processed Food?
According to our definition above, any whole food that is not fresh from the farm is considered processed.
These foods are usually taken into some form of treatment to make them meet the demands of consumers who may not be able to find the products in their natural form.
The advancement of technology in the food industry has enabled us to come up with different techniques to add value to our food for various reasons.
Some examples of processed foods would include:
- Coffee beans that have been roasted and ground to make it easy for you to prepare the drink.
- Processed meats that have gone through canning, curing, smoking, and salting processes.
- Milk going through processes such as pasteurization, sterilization using ultra-high heat treatment (UHT), and fermentation.
- Wheat that has been milled into wheat flour.
- Sugarcane or sugar beet processed into sugar (sucrose)
- Vegetables that have been dried or pickled such as sauerkraut.
As you can see from the above examples, processed foods are usually at the first level of a chain of other processes that may be applied later on to food products.
In most cases of food processing, additives and preservatives are used in the foods to perform several functions that I will describe later here.
Food processing usually ends where the food is packaged to either be consumed directly or to be used as an ingredient in another process.
What Is the Purpose of Food Processing?
Most foods in their natural state cannot be used by consumers as intended.
Food processing thus provides a scientific approach that would satisfy the needs of the ever-demanding consumers.
The only way to do this is to add value to the natural food products we grow and rare in our farms.
In the food industry, processors keep inventing clever ways to make the food appealing and usable to their clients.
Some of the main purposes of food processing include:
1. To Increase Food Shelf Life.
Processes such as curing, salting, drying, pasteurization, irradiation, sterilization, freezing, and canning are mostly done to make the food stay longer than it would have stayed while in its natural state.
Food processing actually came as a remedial intervention after humans understood the causes of food spoilage.
Processing food helps to mitigate the actions of bacteria in our food thus making the food safe to eat for longer periods.
2. To Improve Food’s Nutritional Value
People want to eat foods that will improve their overall wellbeing or help their bodies.
The food industry understands this need and thus adds value to natural foods that fall short of expectations.
This is done through practices such as food fortification where nutrients such as vitamins and minerals are artificially added in natural foods lacking them.
For instance, flour can be fortified with vitamin A to improve its nutritional value to consumers
3. To Make Food Palatable
Most foods, although edible, cannot be fully enjoyed in their natural forms.
For instance, most meats would taste awful if they were to be eaten raw.
The same applies to most vegetables and grains.
Imagine how coffee or tea would taste if we were to consume them in their natural state!
Processes such as blanching, cooking, pickling, roasting, and smoking make us enjoy our food in a better way.
These processes soften the food and improve their flavors and aroma perception making them exciting to our taste buds.
It also makes food to be easily digestible.
4. Processing Improves Food Quality
Consumers want food that is both safe and appealing.
The purpose of food processing revolves around making sure that both the aesthetic and safety parameters of food are met.
Through processing, food quality characteristics such as appearance, texture, flavor, and other standards set by regulators are able to be met.
This is important in catering to the needs of consumers who have diverse needs.
Importance of Food Processing
As much as most people have negative opinions about processed foods, it is important to realize that most of the food we eat is processed in one way or another.
The simple act of cutting your vegetables before cooking or peeling that fruit before eating can qualify as processing.
This is because most foods are not edible, or I should say are not palatable in their natural forms.
We would want to live in an ideal world where we could be getting everything organically fresh from our farms, but that would be overstretching our desires.
Our modern lives come with busy schedules, limited space, and an increasing population, which means more mouths to feed.
This is the reality that makes food processing important in meeting our future food security needs.
We need foods that can stay longer on the shelves without spoiling or losing their quality.
We also need foods that are durable, safe, affordable and easy to get. Anything convenient is welcomed in this fast-paced life.
Food processing done in a controlled manner takes care of these concerns and ensures there is minimal food wastage.
What are the Types of Food Processing?
As mentioned earlier, almost all foods can fall under the processed category.
Before you get alarmed and stop eating everything due to what you have heard about processed foods, it is important to know that there are levels of processing.
The level of food processing done to your favorite meal is thus what you should be concerned about.
According to a system known as the NOVA classification of processed foods, there are three main categories of food processing. These are:
- Minimal food processing: Foods in this category have undergone very little processing and most of their physical and chemical structures have remained virtually unchanged.
Foods that have undergone mild processes such as cutting vegetables, roasting, refrigeration, pasteurization, and general packaging fall in this category.
These foods are very safe to consume.
- Processed Culinary Ingredients: These include culinary ingredients that come from mild processing activities such as grinding, pressing, milling, and refining.
Ground coffee and flour fall under this category.
- Processed foods: These are foods processed by adding two or three ingredients such as flavors, coloring, and salt.
An example of foods in this category is pickled vegetables
- Ultra-Processed Foods: These are also referred to as convenience foods.
They are highly processed and will usually have additional artificial colors, flavors, stabilizers, and preservatives.
Most of them are also presented to consumers in modified atmosphere packaging such as cans or packages sealed with nitrogen or carbon dioxide.
These are the ones you should be careful with when dieting.
As noted at the beginning of this article, manufacturing represents the second phase of value addition in the food industry.
In this phase, the ingredients from processing are integrated either physically, chemically, or biologically to produce complex products.
Food manufacturing usually involves a lot of machinery and automation of operations.
Products from manufacturing also tend to have a longer and stable shelf life.
Examples of Manufactured Foods
I will use the same products I listed in processed foods examples above so that you can see the distinction clearly.
- The ground coffee being further extracted to make instant coffee.
- The processed meat used as an ingredient in making sausages or meat pies.
- Milk powder extracted from pasteurized milk using the spray drying technique
- Turning wheat flour into products such as pasta, bread, and biscuits.
- Using processed sugar as an ingredient in making cake icing or Marshmallow.
All the manufacturing operations above require advanced mechanization and have a lot of food science going in them.
Why Food Manufacturing is Important
Although the operations may be different, the main reasons for food processing are the same reasons for food manufacturing.
It is all about adding value to food products available to us to make food last longer and be more enjoyable.
Perhaps the most significant purpose of food manufacturing that may not be found in food processing is our ability to produce large amounts of foods using minimum amount of raw materials.
If we only depended on fresh foods from farms, we would be having a serious food crisis in the world.
As you can see, both food processing and food manufacturing are important aspects in the food supply chain.
You don’t need to be scared every time you hear the word processed food on your menu.
With the current world population growth rate, we might never go back to the ages where we could get organic food directly from the farms.