Fact versus Fiction: The Role of Food Processing in Global Nutrition

Over the years, the term “processed foods” has acquired a less-than-healthy connotation, especially in higher-income countries. However, processing certain foods can actually improve nutrition — and is a key way to improve food security in the developing world. Learn some of the common misconceptions around food processing and how TechnoServe helps businesses improve their operations and provide more nutritious food for consumers.

As COVID-related food insecurity and malnutrition threaten millions of people worldwide, one of the most promising solutions may seem surprising: food processing. Turning raw crops into a variety of food products helps consumers get a reliable supply of safe, nutritious food. 

Food Processing and Nutrition in the Developing World

Consider the countless ways you probably use salt, flour, cooking oil, and sugar as food ingredients. Many of these staple foods are fortified with essential vitamins and minerals, making food processors key players in fighting malnutrition. During tough economic times, such as those brought on by the COVID-19 crisis, dietary diversity decreases, and consumers tend to favor calories over nutrients. Ensuring the availability, safety, and nutrient value (through fortification) of these staple foods becomes all the more critical, and it is processors who carry this responsibility.

TechnoServe works with food processing companies across sub-Saharan Africa to improve their operations and safety practices so they can purchase more crops from farmers, create more jobs, and provide more high-quality, nutritious food for consumers. Working with partners like the U.S. Agency for International Development and the nonprofit Partners in Food Solutions, TechnoServe has helped over 1,600 food processing companies in six African countries improve their standards and operations, benefiting millions of consumers and strengthening the market for millions of local farmers. 

FICTION: All Processed Foods Are Unhealthy

Most food in grocery stores is processed in some way. Even those closest to their natural forms, where minimal substances have been added — such as flour, dried fruits, and chickpeas — are still considered processed. So, whether it’s vacuum sealing par-boiled rice, canning fresh jam, or producing heat-and-eat meals in a factory, “processed” is an umbrella term. 

When it comes to packaged food and beverages, nutritionists recommend keeping the majority of one’s diet to those with the least number of ingredients possible while meeting the recommended intake of calories and essential nutrients. 

A widely used resource in public health nutrition is the NOVA food classification system, which ranks various food items on a scale according to the extent to, and purpose for which, they have been modified from their original form. TechnoServe’s work focuses on less processed food — groups one through three on the NOVA scale — and is generally for purposes of nutrient fortification, enrichment, or preservation.

FACT: Food processing reduces food loss and waste

In sub-Saharan Africa, experts estimate that up to one-fifth of crops are lost post-harvest. Let’s look at this by the numbers:

  • 20% of all of the time, energy, and money spent on food production (as well as the potential nutrients for local populations) is lost. 
  • 40% of fruits and vegetables are lost before they can be consumed. 

In partnership with Musika Zambia and the World Food Program, TechnoServe’s Commercializing Post-Harvest Loss Solutions project is committed to supporting small and medium enterprise (SME) food processors by increasing their access to technology that can both improve the sustainable supply of nutritious and safe food and improve product utilization from farms, thereby minimizing waste. These efforts involve scaling a strategy proven to reduce loss while also increasing farmer and processor incomes and the availability of nutritious food for local communities. 

TechnoServe’s surveys during the COVID-19 pandemic have shown market disruptions for 75% of all surveyed processors. Market closures and restrictions have been accompanied by changing consumer behavior, with a growing demand for shelf-stable food. Processors play a critical role in maintaining the flow of these foods and also in adapting to market demand. For example, some fresh milk producers have pivoted to long-life milk and have also increased the production of longer-lasting cheese and butter, thereby minimizing the waste of fresh milk. 

FACT: Food processing produces social, health, and economic benefits

Malnutrition in all its forms, especially micronutrient deficiencies, slows physical and cognitive growth and presents some of the most severe obstacles to individuals and nations working to realize their full social and economic potential.

TechnoServe has invested over 50 years into cultivating the partnerships and networks that make all the difference for actors across the food system in the developing world. Its programs create opportunities for these hardworking people to engage across the spectrum of value chain actors that otherwise might be far out of reach. 

For example, food processors participating in the Alliance for Inclusive and Nutritious Food Processing program — a partnership between the United States Agency for International Development, Partners in Food Solutions, and TechnoServe — received technical assistance to adapt to market disruptions, overcome sourcing and operational issues, and strengthen their resilience during the current health and economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. These processing companies are now better equipped to continue providing safe, nutritious, often fortified foods to local populations while maintaining their critical function as off-takers of farm products. 

Food Processing Expands Access to Nutritious Food

Contrary to popular belief, food processing provides many food insecure consumers with the nutrition they need to lead healthy, productive lives. This is particularly true in developing countries, where food processors also provide a profitable and stable market for smallholder farmers to sell their crops. 

The ability to access safe, nutritious, and affordable food is a universal need, and it’s one we all have the capacity to meet on a global scale if we work together. You can play a role in this fight by joining TechnoServe’s mission to eradicate poverty and reduce malnutrition along the way. Your support directly empowers the hardworking people who keep every step of the food supply chain intact.