Food processing Q&A

Answering your questions

What do you want to know?

The basics about food processing
Food safety
Food security
Health & nutrition

The Basics

Food processing is an umbrella term for all the various things we do to raw food ingredients to create the food and drink products that we consume across our diets. Something as simple as heating up ingredients through cooking is a form of food processing.

Basically, food is processed when its raw form has been changed. So, if you’re not eating food in the form from which it came out the ground or from an animal, you are consuming processed food.

Humans have been processing food for millennia. Whether it was the first hunters cooking raw meat over a fire, the first gatherers pulping and mixing fruits, or the first farming communities milling grain, food processing is humanity’s oldest innovation and a staple of our diet throughout history.

Interestingly, humans are the only mammal species whose digestive system cannot sufficiently digest a wide range of raw foods. Our digestive system works much more efficiently when we process our food to make it more edible and to unlock inherent nutrients.

Food processing can describe a number of preparation and cooking techniques that we apply to our food and can also include methods of packaging and preservation.

To name but a few, food processing can include:

  • Blanching
  • Boiling
  • Chopping
  • Cooking/heat treatment
  • Curing
  • Drying/dehydrating
  • Extruding
  • Fermenting
  • Freezing
  • Marinading
  • Mashing
  • Melting
  • Milling/grinding
  • Mixing
  • Pasteurising
  • Pickling
  • Refrigerating
  • Smoking
  • Soaking/hydrating
  • Steaming
  • Washing

We process foods when we cook at home, in restaurants, and in food processing businesses for many reasons:

  • Access: to make food products that can be easily transported and stored without spoiling, not just in the local area in which they were grown
  • Choice: to provide consumers with a diverse range of food choices that may not otherwise be available in their local area in that particular season
  • Convenience: to provide food choices to consumers that can be quickly and easily prepared and consumed
  • Health: to provide food choices suitable for allergies, certain health conditions, infant nutrition, and medial nutrition
  • Longevity: to prolong the shelf-life of food products
  • Nutrition: to break down natural nutrient blockers and unlock the nutrients in certain foods, which our digestive systems would otherwise be unable to absorb (e.g. phytic acid in legumes, which reduces our absorption of minerals when consumed in its raw form – cooking breaks it down)
  • Safety: to eliminate natural bacteria and toxins and prevent spoilage
  • Sustainability: to provide food products that require fewer resources to make and which have a reduced impact on the environment  (e.g. plant-based proteins or utilising waste products)
  • Taste: to improve the taste of certain foods that would otherwise be largely inedible in their raw forms (e.g. coffee, cocoa beans, or grains)

All consumers benefit from food processing.

Food processing is essential to providing food for all people in a modern society.

Food processing gives consumers the choice to use a diverse range of products, sometimes out of-season, in their diet that they would simply be unable to produce from scratch on their own in the quantities required.

The food and drinks processing industry in Europe is also the continent’s leading manufacturing sector, employing 4.6m people, generating €222bn in value added, and buying some 70% of all EU agri-food produce.

The food processing industry support jobs and local communities, both rural and urban, up and down the value chain.


Food additives are food ingredients, many naturally-occurring, which are added to a food in small quantities for the express purpose of fulfilling a desired practical function.

These may include:

  • Antioxidants to prevent fat reacting with oxygen and causing colour changes or rancidity
  • Colours used to improve, restore, or add colour
  • Emulsifiers, stabilisers and gelling agents help mix ingredients
  • Preservatives to improve shelf-life and prevent spoilage
  • Sweeteners to give a sweet taste with no or low caloric content
  • Raising agents to increase the volume of a dough or batter

  • Ascorbic acid stops fruits from oxidising and becoming brown, it is also known by its other name – vitamin C, and classified as E-300.
  • Lecithin, naturally found in eggs, acts as an emulsifier, and is codified in Europe as E-322
  • Pectins, naturally found in apples, act as a gelling agent, and are codified in Europe E-440
  • Carrageenan, a form of  algae, acts as a gelling agent and is codified in Europe as E-407

Although the names might not seem familiar to us, each of them, as with all additives approved in Europe, have been researched extensively and approved safe to use by independent scientists and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

No, all food additives used in the EU must be approved following a rigorous safety evaluation by EFSA, and can only be authorised if they do not pose a risk to the health of the consumer at the level of proposed use.

Food safety is a prerequisite of producing food and drink products in Europe. If it’s not safe, it’s not food.

Food and drink producers actively participate in the safety evaluation of food additives by:

  • Working with the European Food Safety Authority to establish appropriate usage levels of food additives
  • Using additives strictly within their conditions of approval following a rigorous safety evaluation by EFSA
  • Working with additives producers whenever any technical information is requested by EFSA for the safety evaluation of the specific substance.


The plants and animal products that we use as food sources are multi-component and can contain some naturally-occurring yet undesirable substances.

We process these food ingredients to make them safe to eat and to remove these naturally-occurring yet undesirable substances.

Process contaminants are undesirable substances that sometimes form when cooking certain foods.

These substances can occur whether the food is processed at home, in a restaurant, or in the food factory.

They are not intentionally added to food but may be present as a result of processing techniques during certain stages of production.

Baking, frying, grilling or barbecuing, either at home or in manufacturing, can sometimes lead to the formation of these undesirable substances.

The food and drink industry employs the highest levels of monitoring and mitigation to control these substances and ensure that food is safe.

If it’s not safe, it’s not food.

Some contaminants may be unhealthy for us if consumed to excess.

The food and drink industry employs the highest levels of monitoring and mitigation to control these substances and ensure that food is safe.

If it’s not safe, it’s not food.

The first place to start controlling for potential contaminants is at the farm-level. This includes monitoring factors like plant or animal breed, soil conditions, seasonality, harvest time, and storage conditions.

The food and drink industry puts in place a number of mitigation techniques to control process contaminants and keep them at levels as low as can be reasonably achieved, following good farming and manufacturing practices.

Food and drink products undergo strict safety and quality controls to check the presence of any process contaminants.

Food safety

Yes, food processing makes many food and drink products safer and longer-lasting.

Certain food processing techniques invariably improve the safety of storing and consuming certain food products.

Food processing techniques like drying, cooking, canning, freezing, or pasteurisation are just some of the many ways in which food processing makes our food and drink safer to consume and longer-lasting.

The advantage of processing food at-scale, in a food factory, is that we can deploy a large number of quality control resources and expertise to ensure the safest production techniques possible are applied to the making of our food.

Food security

Food processing and processed foods are the backbone of global food security.

  • Crisis: When food is in short supply, emergency food aid is necessary and the processed food industry steps up. Those foods remain stable even at room temperature, when refrigerated conditions are not always available. To take a recent example, look at the food trucks going to Ukraine that have been loaded with infant formula, cereals, long-life milk, canned fruits and vegetables, tea and coffee, pasta and rice – all processed foods.
  • Covid-19: When it was hard to get to the shops, and people wanted to avoid crowded spaces during the Covid-19 pandemic most of us relied on processed foods. Check your shelves and you probably still have some dried, canned, and long-life foods that kept you going through the lockdown.
  • Staples: The majority of global food consumption is centred around major staples, many of which include processed foods like rice, sugar, breads, and milled grains.
  • Environment

    Like all manufacturing, food processing has an impact on the environment. And the scope of this impact depends on the type of food processing undertaken. Chopping and cutting for example, has a lower impact and is less energy-intensive than heating or cooling.

    On aggregate though, the food and drink industry takes advantage of economies of scale to produce a wide variety of food and drink products to satisfy the dietary needs of all people.

    And by producing at scale (i.e. in large production sites), processing can have a lower environmental impact per unit of food produced compared to smaller production sites, and especially compared to doing everything in the home.

    Food processing allows raw food to last longer and be easily transported and stored, ready for consumption, whilst limiting spoilage and reducing food waste.

    Processing can reduce post‐harvest losses and increase the use of by‐products.

    Commercial food manufacturing operations are highly-efficient in the conversion of raw materials into consumer products through forecast planning and efficient procurement.

    The food and drink industry is continually seeking to minimise waste streams, use new or modified processing methods, in‐plant treatment, and unlock circular economies.

    Energy represents more than 75% of EU greenhouse gas emissions and as one of the largest manufacturing sectors in Europe, the entire food and drink chain is a major energy user.

    The emissions impact of food processing depends on the different methods of processing, with simply chopping and packing having a lower impact and energy-use than heating and cooling.

    By integrating climate change in their business strategies, European food and drink manufacturers have achieved a 21% reduction in carbon emissions per unit of value added between 2008 and 2018, that is to say, the industry is getting more efficient at producing food and drink products.

    And between 2000 and 2015, the food industry cut its energy consumption by nearly 20%.

    But there is more to do, that’s why the industry is investing heavily in renewable energy sources and in the circular economy, to preserve the value of the resources that go into making our food and drink products.

    Food processing at scale allows us to divert waste streams and by-products for re-use in the production cycle, whether its grain husks fuelling a biomass boiler, or harvesting residual heat from cooking to use in other parts of the production.

    If global food waste was a country, it would be the 3rd largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind the US and China.

    In Europe, 88 million tonnes of food produced is lost or wasted. That’s why, the EU food and drink industry is committed to halving edible food waste across the supply chain by 2030.

    Food processing helps prevent food waste by taking advantage of economies of scale and optimising the use of raw materials, from peels, to seeds, to husks, to wastewater and more – all can be reused in one way or another, whether in another part of the factory, the wider agri-food chain, or beyond.

    What’s more, the food and drink industry provides consumers with products which are long-lasting and resistant to spoilage, thanks to industrial best practices and the use of optimal packaging and consumer information.

    Health & nutrition

    Food processing plays an essential role in providing healthy and balanced diets for all.

    • Fortified foods: In the course of processing, micronutrients can be added to food, such as vitamins, minerals, and other ingredients to support one’s health and provide an added source of essential nutrition.
    • Food safety: Food processing techniques like drying, cooking, canning, freezing, or pasteurisation are just some of the many ways in which food processing makes our food and drink safer to consume and longer-lasting.
    • Reformulation: In some cases, food products can be reformulated to reduce salt, sugar, and fat levels and improve the product’s nutritional offering. Though complex and not applicable for all products, reformulation can make a positive impact on consumer health.
    • Specialised nutrition: Food processing allows us to make food products suitable for people with allergies and certain health conditions as well as infant nutrition, sports nutrition, and medical nutrition.
    • Unlocking nutrients: For some foods, certain processing techniques can even help breakdown certain nutrient-blocking substances that naturally occur in some raw foods (e.g. phytic acid in legumes, which reduces our absorption of minerals when consumed in its raw form – cooking breaks it down).
    • Whatever your diet, the processing food industry makes the food and drink products that enable it. Whether you prefer your milk to come from cows, goats, almonds, soy or oats, food processing enables that decision.

    No. The level of food processing in and of itself has no bearing on the nutritional content of food.

    It is the final nutritional composition of a product that matters when assessing health, not the level of processing.

    Some processed foods can be energy dense, high in calories, saturated fats, and salt, or low in dietary fibre, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Eating too much of these foods is not good for our health. Indeed, overconsumption of anything is not good for one’s health.

    To achieve a healthy diet, we need to consider the overall nutritional value of the products we eat, how often we eat them, and how this fits with our personal lifestyles – not the level of processing.


    Foods are packaged to protect them from spoilage and damage during transportation and storage, regardless of whether they are processed or raw food.

    Packaging protects our food from light, air, humidity, external contaminants, and microorganisms, all of which change the taste and quality of a product, with consequences for food safety.

    In normal circumstances, but especially during humanitarian crises, food packaging plays a vital role in keeping foods shelf-stable, easily transportable, and accessible for all.

    An oft-overlooked aspect of packaging is its function for labelling. Labelling such as that which can be printed on or affixed to the packaging material provides consumers with essential information about the nutritional characteristics of the product and proper consumption and storage instructions.

    For many years, the food and drink industry has been working on reducing packaging and the environmental impact of packaging.

    In a lot of cases, food packaging cannot simply be removed because packaging plays a vital role in protecting and preserving food products, processed and non-processed alike.

    Some packaging, particularly plastics, can end up in nature and contributes to the growing problem of plastic pollution.

    As a major user of packaging, including plastics, the food and drink industry has a key role to play in limiting the use of packaging, considering the best packaging materials, and contributing to reuse, collection and recycling of packaging waste.

    In Europe, all materials used in food and drink packaging must be rigorously researched and authorised by the European Food Safety Authority before they can be put into contact with food, not just from a human health perspective but also from an environmental perspective.

    This is one of the main challenges in reducing existing packaging because if you want to use new recycled materials, you need to first research its safety with food and then go through the authorisation process.