Busting the myth that processed foods can’t be healthy

Busting the myth that processed foods can't be healthy

Steve Burgess, General Manager Europe at tna solutions, looks at how producers can attract health-conscious consumers and de-bunk the myth that ‘processed’ always means unhealthy.

Processed food has long had a reputation for being the ‘bad boy’ of the grocery aisles, and with consumers evermore focused on their health and wellbeing, there is the potential that these products could sink further. A recent GlobalData report on the ‘Health and Wellness Megatrend’1 highlighted how consumer behaviour is shifting — at the outset of 2022, 66% of global consumers were reported to be always or often influenced by the impact a product or service has on their health and wellbeing.

The food and beverage industry is heading in a healthy direction, driven by consumers seeking out products that align with their aspirations for a healthier lifestyle, and governments too are applying pressure globally to ensure food manufacturers continue to improve the nutritional credentials of their products. Like high-sugar products before them, ‘ultra-processed’ foods have become the industry’s latest ‘bogeyman’, and the consensus is that the more processed the product, the less nutritious it is.

In this article, we’ll discuss how packaged goods don’t have to be deemed as the ‘unhealthy’ option and break down strategies manufacturers can use to give consumers the reassurance, insight and sense of control they need to see processed food in a whole new light.

Reformulating for a healthier nutritional profile

Many processed foods derive a large part of their signature flavour from the seasoning stage of production — making this an important stage for nutritional improvement. In the UK, for example, upcoming government regulations designed to limit the placement and promotion of foods classed as high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) have already prompted potato chip giants Walkers (PepsiCo) to launch a reduced-salt version. Seasoning is, of course, a vital process, but in many cases this is where the majority of a product’s added salt or sugar content is incorporated. As such, the seasoning process is a key area where food producers can reduce and control sugar and salt levels in their products via more accurate processing equipment. In doing so, they will be better equipped to meet tight nutrition targets, while at the same time reducing food waste and changeover times.

In order for brands to adapt, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) must support them accordingly, and where seasoning is concerned, one of the core elements is providing solutions that deliver the freedom to adapt and exercise precise recipe control. This is essential to ensuring flexible and efficient operating practices, and the latest on-machine seasoning solutions feature independent scarf feeders and separate tumble drums to accommodate alternative product varieties on a single production line.

This more automated, recipe-driven approach is vital as demand increases for products that contribute to better health and wellbeing, as lowering salt and fat content will be fundamental. Intelligent seasoning systems that incorporate integrated controls and monitoring solutions can monitor the quantities of salt or oil being applied accurately. As a result, brands are able to offer greater transparency, at the same time enhancing efficiencies. Digitally enabled systems also allow manufacturers the freedom to adapt recipes, meaning that switching between standard and lower salt and fat content products can be done at the touch of a button at the beginning of each batch.

Focusing on frying

Frying is a familiar cooking method that’s easy for consumers to understand, and it’s often associated with high-fat, high-salt foods like potato chips and French fries, which go against the grain of perceived healthy foods. However, with the right processing equipment, brands can control oil quality during the frying process and open up the possibility of using healthier oils to give their products a more attractive nutritional profile.

When it comes to creating products that are more suited to the health and wellness category, oil quality is an important aspect. Selecting a high-quality, high-stability frying oil can help to minimise and even remove trans fats entirely, and there are additional benefits too in the form of prolonged shelf life and improved taste. These elements translate well to on-pack messaging and help to distance processed foods from the stigma surrounding products with high levels of unhealthy fat content.

New ingredients are also on the radars of producers as a possible solution to improve the health credentials of products such as chips. Ingredients such as lentils, whole seeds and quinoa have all featured in recent recipe innovations, as well as vegetables and even some fruits. With the right machinery, capable of adapting to different raw materials, there is an opportunity for producers to put a healthy twists on the classics.

Healthier and safer for people and the planet

While many plant-based foods are technically more processed than animal products, they are almost always healthier and more sustainable. It is a matter of mindset — moving away from the idea that processed is somehow a negative element and introducing the concept of the process being the facilitator of the healthy end product. In addition, that process can also be optimised from a sustainability perspective, adding further to the overall positive credentials brands are able to convey to consumers. There is everything to gain from targeting both elements.

For food producers, the key is choosing flexible, efficient processing and packaging solutions that can be adapted quickly to produce plant-based products. Features such as automated gas-flow analysis software drives power and resource savings, for example, and can help boost the power of the ‘health-halo’ effect even further by minimising energy wastage and ensuring fewer packs are rejected due to being under- or over-filled with gas.

Processing is also needed to create allergen-free products, and energy-efficient and hygienic processing equipment helps brands deliver these benefits to consumers. Looking back at a 2021 GlobalData report, 57% of consumers cited food safety concerns as a major influence on their purchasing decisions.2 Food producers, therefore, must keep processing equipment scrupulously clean to prevent such things as cross-contamination.

Hygienically designed processing equipment, with minimal moving parts and features, can be easily sanitised between product runs, while production elements such as horizontal distribution conveyers, for example, can be constructed using food-grade stainless steel with a 2B natural finish. Such materials can withstand aggressive fats, oils and flavours, whilst remaining resilient to caustic cleaning materials.

Harnessing line monitoring data

Clean label and traceability are closely connected to health in the minds of conscious consumers, and by lifting the lid on the manufacturing process, brands can build consumer trust in their products. Online monitoring systems and smart equipment operating systems can provide this invaluable insight, with intelligent, accurate and customisable digital data collection systems helping brands provide customers with concrete insights at every stage of the production process.

If we take inline systems like barcode scanners, date code assurance tools and metal detection equipment, for example, there are many possibilities. Integrated into the production line at various intervals, barcode scanners have the ability to verify the correct product batch is being processed by scanning product barcodes and cross-checking them with pre-approved production schedules. Then, once the product has been verified, date code assurance systems can take over to confirm that ‘use-by’ dates are printed, complete and legible on the product packaging. Then, finally, metal detectors and X-ray equipment continuously scan for foreign bodies, pinpointing sources of contamination within the product stream. With the comprehensive oversight provided by these solutions, manufacturers can check, scan and verify each and every pack to meet both the standards of consumers and regulatory bodies.

By improving traceability, brands can ensure the production process is operating efficiently, at the same time helping producers to reassure consumers of the safety of the products. Consumers perceive sustainably produced products to be ‘fresher and safer’, largely because they offer greater transparency about their ingredients sourcing and processing methods, so it is a win-win situation.

Conclusion

Similarly to tackling climate change, seismic change needs to be led from the top. The food industry does have a responsibility to help consumers make healthy diet choices, but this doesn’t have to mean a complete rejection of processed foods. From keeping shelf lives stable, to making essential nutrition accessible and affordable for all, there are many ways processing food can actually make products healthier and give consumers more control — something which food brands should do more to highlight. By clearly and honestly communicating these benefits, and taking steps to improve the nutritional credentials of their products, manufacturers can break down the myths that make consumers suspicious of processed foods.

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2. GlobalData, TrendSights Analysis 2021: Sustainability & Ethics, May 2021, slide 10.

Top image credit: iStock.com/ollo


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