Once upon a time, most families made the bulk of their meals at home. As populations have become more urban and less rural, food industry growth has been an indispensable puzzle piece, making it increasingly possible for people to eat daily meals without doing much hands-on work. Most of this processing has become automated, achieving autonomies of scale but arguably declining in quality and causing a range of health issues.
Food manufacturing is the process of transforming edible raw materials into products for human consumption.
- Packaged staples. Staples such as bread, sugar and rice may be minimally or intensively processed. They are sold in packages in most grocery stores, and the packaging can similarly be minimal or elaborate. Bread production relies on food manufacturing to mill and refine flour and then bake and package the bread. Sugar and rice are single-ingredient products, but food manufacturing nonetheless plays a role in their production, as cane juice is processed and refined into its granular form, and rice is cleaned and hulled.
- Prepared convenience foods. Foods that require little work on the part of the consumer are especially profitable for food manufacturers because much of their value comes from the processing rather than from ingredients that need to be purchased or produced. These "value-added" products are marketed for their convenience and tend to take the form of complete meals or dishes.
- Animal processing. Butchers and slaughterhouses are part of the food manufacturing value chain as well, processing meat by breaking down whole animals into sellable parts. The greater the level of processing, the more meat usually costs relative to its unprocessed state. If you buy the meat of a whole animal directly from a farmer, you'll pay considerably less per pound than if you buy marinated, skewered, bite-size pieces.
- Specialty foods. The specialty foods industry processes rare and valuable ingredients or adds extra value to otherwise ordinary foods to prepare them for discerning or gourmet customers. Some specialty food products such as truffle oil are produced from ingredients that are already expensive. Others, like high-quality vinegars, start with inexpensive raw materials and justify their high prices through technique and attention to detail.
One major logistical consideration for any food manufacturing company is the importance of shelf life, or the amount of time that a food will be safe and appealing. The longer the shelf life, the easier it is to market and distribute a product because you have a more forgiving window for shipping and merchandising.
A product that molds or turns sour after three days can only be sold to retailers in your immediate area, either via direct sales to customers or through a very short supply chain because every day that it is in transit shortens its already short shelf life. In contrast, a shelf-stable product such as canned beans can have a shelf life of a year or more, giving you time to ship it to a warehouse and allowing a retailer to stock it on a shelf for months if need be.
Some of the food manufacturing process is dedicated specifically to making perishable foods shelf-stable. Sealing foods in packaging that prevents deterioration uses manufacturing equipment and technologies. Food preservation techniques such as pickling, dehydrating, freezing and canning similarly transform foods that would become inedible relatively quickly into products that can last long enough to be financially viable. These processes often depend on clean and even sterile manufacturing environments to keep foods free of the microbes that cause spoilage.
Refrigeration and freezing similarly extend shelf life by lowering temperatures enough to retard or inhibit bacterial growth. These food processing techniques are most successful when they cool products rapidly, lessening the window of time in the danger zone (41 degrees Fahrenheit to 145 degrees Fahrenheit), the temperature range where foodborne pathogens are most likely to thrive.
Food manufacturers use blast-chilling technologies to lower temperatures as quickly as possible to prepare products for their journey from processing plant to wholesaler to retailer to customer.
Food manufacturers use both ancient and modern techniques to process their products.
- Cutting and chopping: You can cut vegetables or meats at home, but food manufacturers add value and shorten the time it takes to make dinner by doing this cutting for you. From peeling, cutting and canning pineapple to preparing cubes of beef that you simply have to unwrap and drop into an oiled pan, food processors use equipment and techniques to make raw materials more user friendly.
- Preserving: Food preservation extends shelf life and can also enhance flavor. Dehydrated meat, fruit and vegetables have amplified taste because the removal of moisture lessens their weight while leaving their flavor intact, increasing the ratio of flavor to volume. Pickling and preserving similarly amplify flavors by adding salt or acidity. Canned fruits and tomatoes are cooked down to concentrate their flavor before being sealed to make them shelf stable.
- Seasoning: Food processing can also augment the flavor of otherwise simple foods by combining ingredients with complementary raw materials. Salad dressings and salsas are usually made from relatively simple combinations of ingredients, blended for convenience or because a manufacturer has an especially appealing recipe.
- Homogenizing: Some food products are processed to keep components together that might otherwise separate. Salad dressing manufacturers use additives and stabilizers to spare you the inconvenience of shaking the bottle. Homogenized milk is treated to keep the cream from rising to the top.
Humans have been manufacturing food since ancient times, when communities processed and stored their harvests to tide them over through lean, unproductive winters. In fact, some historians believe that the ability to process foods led to the growth of some of the earliest sophisticated and stratified cultures.
Surpluses of grain allowed some people to move into positions of authority and engage in the management, tracking and distribution of inventory, while other people performed the hard labor of harvesting, threshing and preparing stocks for storage. Subsequent civilizations built on these foundations, diversifying the possibilities for processed and manufactured foods through baking, fermenting and preserving.
The sugar industry was perhaps the first large-scale international food manufacturing endeavor. Ancient and medieval merchants had moved spices from far corners of the globe, but the sugar industry actually developed plantations, taking a plant indigenous to New Guinea and planting it in India, islands off the coast of Africa and finally in the Western Hemisphere. Not only did sugar manufacturers orchestrate the planting and harvesting of the cane, usually with slave labor, but they also boiled and molded the cane juice into coarser and finer products that they sold around the globe.
The industrial revolution was also a revolution in food manufacturing, employing technologies to feed growing urban populations who moved to cities to work in factories as regional economies changed and it became less viable for families to stay on their land and operate independent homesteads. From ready-to-eat foods such as fish and chips to shelf-stable products such as biscuits, jam and tea, food manufacturing made it possible for people to live and work in crowded spaces with few cooking facilities.
As technologies have grown increasingly sophisticated, food manufacturing has entered new territory, often synthesizing products that bear little or no resemblance to their original raw materials. Contemporary food manufacturing techniques and equipment have enabled processors to create everything from ready-to-eat meals that hold up in space to supplements that provide essential nutrients in pill form to frozen dinners designed to be reheated in microwaves and eaten in front of the television.
Corn in particular has proven to be a crop that lends itself to endless manufacturing possibilities. It can be processed into sugar, pressed into oil and used as animal fodder on feedlots that yield beef, corn and chicken on an unprecedented scale. Its versatility and cost effectiveness have made it a cheap and ubiquitous source of edible calories that dominates diets in many industrialized nations.
Food manufacturing has made it possible to feed a steadily growing population. From technologies that increase agricultural yields to processes that create edible foods from raw materials that would have had minimal or limited use during less technologically advanced times, food manufacturers have managed to streamline production, preservation and distribution, creating a world of edible products that are shelf stable and even sometimes nutrient dense.
Food manufacturing also saves time and makes it easier for people who don't enjoy cooking or have little skill or experience in the kitchen. The increasing array of convenience foods allows anyone who can afford them to eat a diet with plenty of variety, including omnivore and vegetarian options and packaged dishes from all over the world.
These include building blocks such as packaged sauces and mixes for people who want some minimal hands-on involvement in preparing their own meals to frozen dinners that can be eaten right out of the tray.
Although manufactured and processed foods are convenient, they are usually mechanically engineered rather than created by humans. The need for food is primal, a fundamental physical drive that can be filled with nurturing and care. It feels very different to eat a frozen dinner than a home-cooked meal prepared by someone who is concerned genuinely and deeply about your physical and emotional well-being.
Food manufacturing also arguably provides inferior foods that may be behind a wide range of diet-related diseases. The ingredients that go into industrially manufactured foods are often mass produced as well. Animals are fed intensively in feedlots and are administered antibiotics to help them survive the pathogens that thrive in these cramped environments. Vegetables and grains are mass produced on land that is treated with chemical fertilizers that provide basic soil nutrients but lack the extraordinary nutritional complexity of topsoil built painstakingly from organic matter.
Many of the ingredients that are added to processed foods to render them shelf stable can have negative health effects when consumed over time. Excessive consumption of salt, sugar and chemical preservatives can contribute to incidences of conditions and diseases such as high blood pressure, type two diabetes and even cancer. In addition, many processed foods are developed to satisfy cravings so effectively that they lead to overeating and eventually high rates of obesity.
Food manufacturing isn't negative in its own right. In fact, it has made it possible for a growing population to live on a planet with limited resources. The disadvantages of food manufacturing don't necessarily stem from the fact that food is being processed but rather from some practices and policies that prioritize profit and convenience over health.
Consumers have the capacity to make thoughtful, informed choices about the processed foods they purchase and consume, and manufacturers are equally capable of designing healthier and more sustainable offerings.