Consumption of highly processed foods – a boon or a bane?


Market economics promotes value addition in food due to growing urban population, employment generation due to increased demand for processed products in grains, sugar, edible oils, beverages and dairy products. Further, value addition in food processing is expected to reduce wastage. Being the second largest producer of food, less than 10 per cent of food is processed in India. Is this a boon or a bane?

Highly processed foods require inter alia use of sugar, refining, oils. Highly refined grains are used in most processed foods, to improve shelf life, texture, appearances, stripping the essential fibre and nutrients crucial for gut microbiota. Fortification with synthetic vitamins and iron cannot compensate for vital ingredients lost in refining. Use of highly processed vegetable oils where hexane is used as solvent in food processing is also common.

Major energy intake in high-income countries is from ultra-processed foods and beverages. In the US, consumption of ultra-processed products contributed 60% of calories in packaged food and beverage purchases from retail food stores by households, 55% of calories purchased in Canada, 51% in UK, 49% in Norway. Industrially prepared highly processed foods which required no/minimal domestic preparation contributed to 60% of energy intake in EU, 56% of home food expenditure in Australia, 84% of packaged foods in New Zealand. Studies have shown that consumption of ultra-processed is associated with risk of obesity, increase in LDL cholesterol, and risk of hypertension. While the growth rate is food processing is impressive, how harmful have been the highly processed foods is crucial. In the US, 74% of men and 68% of women are overweight or obese. More than 60% of American diet is from highly processed foods of grains with different combinations of sugar, salt, oil, additives, with a high proportion in junk food category due to use of refined grains, sugars, emulsifiers, dough conditioners, preservatives.

Demand for processed food market in India is expected to grow at an impressive 14.6 percent. The creation of Ministry of Food Processing Industries (MoFPI) has been to encourage investments across value chain, with focus on agro processing, cold chain, food processing, operation greens, linkages, and Food testing labs. Should the Ministry of Food Processing Industries promote manufacture of highly processed food or promote relatively more of primary processing? The operation greens for instance, aims to promote FPOs, agri-logistics, processing facilities and professional management in general and for integrated development of Tomato, Onion and Potato (TOP) value chain.

The consumers in India still prefer fresh produce over processed food. Perhaps our relatively slow pace of urbanisation and low labour force participation of women have resulted in the preference for fresh foods. With both men and women in families entering labor force, consumption of processed food may increase due to paucity of time for domestic cooking. Thus, with increase in urban and young population, demand for processed food will increase and has a demonstration effect on rural population.

Type of food eaten is linked with prevalence of NCDs (non communicable diseases) -diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s leading to more than 70% of deaths. Worldwide about 41 million people die every year from preventable conditions. Thus, diet is becoming the top risk factor for mortality.

Given the harmful effects of consuming highly processed foods as advanced countries are already experiencing, it is desirable to promote primary processing in India rather than secondary and tertiary processing of food. Primary processing not only creates local employment, but also sustains them due to creation of healthy foods. The processing tur to tur dhal, and similarly all whole grams (green gram, black gram, Bengal gram…), millets to flour, Soji, making available fresh cut pineapple, fresh cut pomegranates, fresh cut jackfruit, Ragi to ragi huri hittu, vadda ragi hittu, preparation of local processed foods such as chakkuli, vade, kodubale, nippattu, uppinakai, kharaseve, kobbari mitai, sandige, hurigaalu, which still has great local demand for instance are a few examples.

This also promotes use of fox tail millet, kodo millet, proso millet, little millet, barn yard millet, brown top millet, which are climate smart crops, as they sustain the late rains with drought tolerance yielding nutrient rich fodder and help small and marginal farmers from dry land areas of India. This will also reduce the area under crops which dominated the green revolution paddy, wheat for which sufficient stocks are available and promote millets, which require 1/5 th of water used for cultivating paddy. These millets address not only the nutritional deficiency but also health as they contribute to dietary fiber. These promote not only healthier and fresh foods, but also reduce the risk of consuming unhealthy highly processed foods. We need to realize that our everyday food choices directly affect our health. This emphasizes the need to feed our body right, else the body will eat us. The real food is high in fibre, while highly processed food is not. Reducing consumption of highly processed food as much as possible benefits is a win-win for all.

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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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