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Processing Food to Preserve Nutrients and Stop Spoilage

Processing upgrades the nutritional value of foods by changing food from a living thing (animal or vegetable) into an integral component of your healthful diet. Processing preserves nutrition, lengthens shelf life, reduces the risk of foodborne illnesses, and maintains or improves a food’s texture and flavor.

Where food is concerned, the term natural doesn’t necessarily translate as “safe” or “good to eat.” Food spoils (naturally) when microbes living (naturally) on the surface of meat, a carrot, a peach, or whatever reproduce (naturally) to a population level that overwhelms the food.

Sometimes you can see, feel, or smell when this is happening. You can see mold growing on cheese, feel how meat or chicken turns slippery, and smell when the milk turns sour. The outward signs are caused by exploding populations of microorganisms. Don’t even argue with them; just throw out the food.

All food processing is designed to prevent what happens to the chicken (or the cheese or the milk). It aims to preserve food and extend its shelf life (the period of time when it’s safe to consume and nutritious) by stemming the natural tide of biological destruction. (But wait! Not all microbes are bad guys. “Good” ones ferment milk to yogurt or cheese and produce wines and beers.)

Reducing or limiting the growth of food’s natural microbe population not only lengthens its shelf life, but also lowers the risk of foodborne illnesses. Increased food safety is a natural consequence of most processing that keep foods usable longer.

For simplicity’s sake, here’s a list of the methods used to extend the shelf life of food.

  • Temperature methods: Cooking, canning, refrigerating, and freezing

  • Air control: Canning and vacuum packaging

  • Moisture control: Dehydration and freeze-drying (a method that combines methods of controlling the temperature, air, and moisture)

  • Chemical methods: Acidification, mold inhibition, and salting (dry salt or brine)

  • Irradiation

  • High-pressure processing

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