The Evolution of the Processed Foods Industry

From farm to fork, from field to plate, from seed to shelf… More and more people are looking to learn as much about their food as possible in today’s day and age. Consumers want to know where their food was grown and produced, who grew it, and how. The same thing can also be said about the ingredients used in their food. To get a broader perspective on food ingredients, consumers and producers alike need to look at the history of food. It’s been a long while since humanity has moved away from its hunter-gatherer ways to farming, animal husbandry, food processing by hand, and ultimately to modern-day farming and food production. What this evolution of food acquisition, production, and processing stands to highlight is the changing technologies used to create it.

While some food types can be eaten raw, such as fruits or vegetables, most other foods will need some degree of processing to ensure safety and digestibility. In many cases, food processing will also improve the food’s color, flavor, and texture, and meet customer expectations. It’s usually not possible, convenient, or even healthy to avoid all processed foods all the time. Contrary to popular belief, food today has never been safer, more nutritious, or delicious than at any other time in the past. It was mostly the Industrial Revolution’s innovations during the late-18th century and after, which led to the many quality improvements, we enjoy today.

To put it simply, food processing can be described as a variety of operations through which raw food ingredients are made suitable for cooking, storage, and/or consumption. Even simple procedures such as washing, peeling, juicing, or removing inedible parts, can be considered part of processing. More comprehensively, however, food processing will include all actions that will substantially change the initial product, such as heating, curing, smoking, maturing, marinating, drying, extraction, or extrusion.

The Early Beginnings of Processed Foods

Food processing has been around since prehistoric times. We know that humans have been using fire for at least 250,000 years, which also introduced cooking as a form of food processing. Cooking improved the safety, digestibility, and palatability of food for prehistoric people. More complex types of processed foods appeared during ancient and medieval times. These techniques included everything from fermenting to sun-drying, pickling vegetables, salting and smoking meats, cheese-making, bread baking, steaming vegetables, and more.

These basic food processing methods involved various chemical, enzymatic changes to the food’s basic structure when it was in its natural form. This served several purposes, but the most important being a barrier against microbial activity that resulted in rapid food decay. Processed foods made up a significant part of the human diet when eating fresh foods was impossible. This included everything from regular seasonal changes, as well as crop failures, or even wars.

Salt, for example, was an especially common type of food preservative used throughout the ancient world. Sailors and marching armies, in particular, relied heavily on salted, smoked, and other such processed foods until the introduction of various canning methods. Both archeological and written historical evidence point to these food processing methods and preservation across the ancient world. This applied to the Greek, Egyptian, and Roman civilizations, and other parts of Europe, the Americas, or Asia. These were tried and tested methods of food processing that remained virtually unchanged until the Industrial Revolution. But even before then, there were some examples of ready-to-eat meals like the famous Scottish Haggis or the Cornish pasty.

Processed Foods in the 20th Century

The mass-scale production and processing of food were only introduced in the late 18th and 19th centuries and to cater to the military in large part. It was in 1809 when Nicolas Appert invented the technique of hermetic bottling. This was used to preserve food for French troops and contributed to future processing and preservation techniques such as tinning and canning. These were invented only a year later by Peter Durand. Even if it were expensive to produce and somewhat hazardous because of the lead used, canned foods would soon become a staple worldwide. About half a century later, in 1864, Louis Pasteur discovered pasteurization. This technique significantly improved the quality and safety of processed food and introduced better preservations for beer, wine, and milk. 

During the first half of the 20th century, Europe underwent severe malnourishment, caused, in large part, by the economic depression, World War I, as well as the onslaught of the influenza virus (the flu). As a result, mass food production began focusing on sustaining Europe’s population. This included the reduction of food-borne diseases, nutrient deficiencies, and malnutrition. This is achieved by providing protein-rich, energy-dense, and vitamin-fortified foods to large sections of the population. 

After World War II, the subsequent Cold War, the space race, and the rising consumer society in the developed world, processed foods became even more advanced. New technological innovations in the processed food industry, such as spray drying, plate evaporators, freeze-drying, juice concentrate, artificial sweeteners, coloring agents, and various preservatives such as sodium benzoate, have ushered in a new era of food types in people’s diets. By the late 20th century, reconstituted fruits and juices, instant soups, frozen meals, and MRE (meal, ready-to-eat) military food rations were developed. Blenders, microwave ovens, and rotimatics, among other such technologies from this same period, paved the way for today’s convenience cooking. 

The second half of the 20th century saw a steep rise in convenience across North America and Western Europe. Middle-class mothers and working wives were the prime target market for most food processing companies. Often credited to Clarence Birdseye, frozen foods saw their best success in juice concentrate and the so-called TV dinners. Marketers used the perceived value of time to sell their “convenience foods” to the postwar population to great effect. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the same appeal is used today when it comes to ready-to-eat meals. 

Today’s Driving Factors Behind Processed Food Sales

Mass food processing and production still serve an important role in the 21st century. Without these processes, consumers around the world would be restricted to food types that are produced locally. These would be highly limiting factors for most of the population, especially for those living in urban areas. By having access to an increased food offer, people can diversify their diet, which is more likely to provide a healthier and more comprehensive mix of nutrients. 

The many factors that influence today’s consumers regarding their food choices include quality, appearance, price, taste, health, habits, family preferences, safety, production methods, brand names, country of origin, availability, and avoiding various allergens. People’s eating habits have changed over time, driven by time pressures and the increased convenience. More people are eating out-of-home today than at any other time in the past. 

Additionally, food choices can also be driven by emerging trends on the world stage. These can include everything from foods that are considered organic, fair-trade, or those perceived as environmentally sustainable. Over the past several decades, consumers have grown increasingly health-conscious and more interested in maintaining and improving their wellbeing through healthy diets. 

The Effects of Food Processing on the Nutritional Value

Even simple procedures such as washing, cutting, and packaging fresh fruits and vegetables have minimal effects on the initial nutritional quality. More complex processes, such as heating and boiling, will increase the overall safety and reduce vitamin content. Water-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin C, are especially susceptible to heat treatments. For instance, up to 40% of the vitamin C content can be lost while boiling peeled potatoes. The total vitamin loss will be dependent on both the heating time and temperature. The process of blanching the vegetables for a few minutes, followed by freezing, drying, and canning, will retain most of the vitamins and minerals. 

Refined grains, like white rice, pasta, or bread will contain lower levels of dietary fiber, as well as vitamins and minerals than their whole-grain alternatives. These can, however, be added back after milling by a process known as enrichment. In other instances, food processing can also make nutrients more readily available for our consumption. Vitamin B3 (Niacin) in maize is not nutritionally available unless the maize has been soaked and cooked in limewater. 

Cablevey’s tubular cable and disc system are perfectly suitable for conveying these types of processed foods; without breakage and in a sanitary way. Tubular cable-and-disc assemblies move food material through an enclosed tube while also consuming less energy than other conveyor systems used in the food processing industry. The motors used are 7.5hp or less and can transport up to 2,000 cubic feet of food product per hour (42.4 m3/h). The risk of cross-contamination, breakage, separation, and degradation is kept at an absolute minimum, and so is wear and tear, as well as the need for maintenance.

Cable and disc conveyor systems are also self-cleaning, thanks to the wipers that constantly clean the tube. Additionally, a Clean-in-Place (CIP) system can be used, which is a very simple design for cleaning.

Cable conveyors move material vertically, horizontally, around corners, and angles to fit the needs of each facility. Cablevey can be your partner from the development stage when developing new formulations, creating a product, and testing the market. These enclosed tubular drag conveyors are custom-designed and can fit into any processing scheme and manufacturing space. Our conveyors can be engineered to service every part of your production process – from mixing to baking/cooking to packaging.