Given the media hype around processed food, this may seem a controversial statement. But the ability to process food – using techniques developed over decades that are still evolving – is hugely valuable. Innovative and cutting-edge practices enable us as an industry to produce delicious and nutritious food and drink at scale and at affordable prices.
Processing allows us to buy raw ingredients from farmers and make the delicious, safe food sold all over the country every day. At its most basic, processing is washing, chopping, cooking, freezing and canning. It increases shelf life, helps to preserve food and reduces waste. It supports those with specific diets – for example, providing alternative proteins for people following plant-based diets and safe products for people with food allergies.
Food and drink is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK, and we take our responsibility to fill kitchen cupboards up and down the country with good, nutritious food seriously. At its heart, processing ensures consumers have a range of choice on supermarket shelves. It allows manufacturers to offer products for every occasion at every price point. Indeed, if you removed processed products from sale, you would struggle to fill a corner shop, let alone a supermarket.
Processing also plays an important role in helping people to make healthier choices. We’ve seen manufacturers tweak recipes to add more vegetables to a pasta sauce, reduce sugar in breakfast cereals, or add a mineral like calcium to oat milk. Sometimes this makes ingredient lists look unfamiliar to consumers. This is because, in order to reduce the sugar content, we may need to add a sweetener. Or we may need to use an emulsifier to maintain the creamy texture of a low-fat sauce or mayonnaise.
Processing also enables us to add things – like fibre, which everyone needs to eat more of – to everyday foods. Our Action on Fibre initiative is bridging the gap between how much fibre we should eat and what we actually do eat. Through this initiative, more than 7.2 billion servings of fibre have been added to foods, while calories, sugar and salt have been removed (there are 13% fewer calories, 15% fewer sugars and 24% less salt in today’s average shopping basket compared to eight years ago).
Food and drink manufacturers are committed to continuing this hard work. While funding to support companies – particularly smaller ones – to innovate would be helpful, what we really need is for government to promote its own nutrition guidelines and its strong track record on assessing the safety of ingredients. And to be loudly proud of the food industry and the hundreds of thousands of people across the UK who are making safe, delicious food available to everybody.