Processed food has had a dramatic impact on the way we live. No longer does life revolve around the family kitchen, where all food is prepared freshly from raw ingredients. Instead, many products are bought pre-made, whether this is bread and biscuits, or pre-made sauces and ready meals.
These days, we regard processed foods as being something that comes out of a tin or the freezer. In reality, most of the food products we buy have been processed in some way, and we now eat relatively few foods in a natural, raw state, such as grains, nuts, eggs, unpasteurised milk, raw meat and fish, fruit and vegetables. Many of the familiar products we rely on are processed – bread and cakes, pasta, mayonnaise, ice cream, chocolate and even beer, wines and spirits. While most of these could be prepared at home in the kitchen, our increasingly busy lifestyles mean that most people choose to buy them ready-made from the supermarket.
Processed foods are transported from where they are made, and this often involves long distances. They then spend time on the shelf before they are bought and eaten, before a specified date. The properties needed for foods like these are bound to be different from foods cooked at home for immediate consumption.
As an example, take a home-made apple pie. It’s delicious when it’s fresh out of the oven, but the next day it won’t taste as good as some of the juices from the fruit will have soaked into the pastry. A pie bought in a shop will be several days old before it is eaten, which provides the food processor with the problem of ensuring the pastry crust and filling remain tasty and appealing. Additives are part of the solution.
Food additives and specialist ingredients help maintain the taste, appearance and nutritional quality of processed food, and also to keep it safe throughout the whole chain of production, distribution, life on the shelf and consumption. The most important additives here are preservatives, antioxidants, emulsifiers, flavourings and colours. Specialist ingredients are important components in functional food products, and these are described in more detail here.
Food processing gives consumers choice and convenience, and additives are an essential part of the process. Without them, the vast range of branded and own-label products we are used to finding on the supermarket shelves simply wouldn’t exist. There would be no low-sugar and no low-fat products, for example. And those ready meals that fit in so well with the busy lifestyle would vanish.
Food formulation is an art – whether it’s practised by a Michelin-starred chef or an expert in creating processed foods with longer shelf-lives. And it’s an art that has made it possible to buy so many different, tasty food products that are ready for us to enjoy.