Not All Processed Foods Are Created Equal

The proof is in the package

Dietitians and health experts are becoming more and more vocal about the effects of processed foods on our health, with everything from the rise in obesity rates to high blood pressure and diabetes. Consumers are warned against eating too many chips, cereals, microwave meals, and meats such as bacon, sausage, and ham—just to name a few.

So what exactly makes food “processed”? And furthermore, what makes processed food ostensibly less healthy than fresh food?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), processed food is defined as “any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging, or other procedures that alter the food from its natural state. This may include the addition of other ingredients to the food, such as preservatives, flavors, nutrients, and other food additives or substances approved for use in food products, such as salt, sugars, and fats.”

It’s the items at the end of the list that tend to make processed foods less healthy than fresh, for obvious reasons. But why then do processed foods have more salts, sugars, and fats? It’s a bit complicated, but here is the long and the short of it.

To make processed foods safe to eat, they need to be sterilized. With dairy products, this method is commonly known as pasteurization. With meats and vegetables, the Retort Sterilization process is used to keep foods “shelf stable,” meaning they can be stored for long periods of time and still safely consumed. The canned meats, soups, stews, chilis, and vegetables you see on the grocery store shelves have been heated to very high temperatures—up to 275°F for several minutes—to kill bad bacteria within their sealed containers.

Unfortunately, in addition to killing microbes the heat of Retort Sterilization also causes degradation in flavor, texture and nutritional loss (especially Vitamins C and B1). To compensate for this loss of flavor, food manufacturers add salts, sugars, and fats to improve taste. But what if these foods didn’t need to be sterilized for as long and didn’t suffer the same level of degradation?

That’s the promise of Tetra Recart™, a retortable carton that features a thin layer of metal film inside renewable paperboard. Compared to a can, the Tetra Recart carton has a thinner profile which enables a more rapid heat transfer for both preparation and for sterilization during processing. Less heat exposure means less degradation and improved taste, color, and flavor along with lower nutrient losses.

That’s why not all processed foods can be viewed equally. Check out the amounts of sodium, sugar, and fat in a carton product versus a can. The differences may surprise you. Also take note of the type of foods that are packaged in cartons: these brands are often built on the promise of more natural, healthier, and better-tasting ingredients.

“Packaging innovation can play a big role reducing the effects of processing on the taste and nutritional qualities of the foods we eat,” says Pawel Marciniak, Co-Founder of IPM Foods (now NaturPak). “Retort pouches, for example, are helping manufacturers of a wide range of foods bring healthier, less-processed foods to market that consumers love.”

At NaturPak, we work with food and beverage manufacturers to design packaging that enhances taste with fewer added ingredients. As an exclusive Tetra Recart™ partner, we help bring exciting new products to the market through packaging innovation. To discuss a packaging audit or to learn more, contact us today!