Making Food Better and Better for You

Some food processing really does make your food taste better; a well-broiled steak beats a raw one anytime. Processing also allows you to sample a wide variety of seasonal foods (mostly fruits and vegetables) all year long, and it enables food producers to improve the nutritional status of many basic foods, such as grains and milk, by enriching or altering them to meet the needs of modern consumers.

Intensifying flavor and aroma

One advantage of food processing is that it enables you to enjoy things never seen in nature, such as the ever-popular — and ever criticized — cheese spread. A more mundane benefit of food processing is that it intensifies aroma and flavor, almost always for the better. Here’s how:

  • Drying concentrates flavor. A prune has a different, darker, more intensely sweet flavor than a fresh plum. On the other hand, dried food can be hard and tough to chew (think beef jerky).
  • Heating heightens aroma by quickening the movement of aroma molecules. In fact, your first tantalizing hint of dinner usually is the scent of cooking food. Chilling has the opposite effect: It slows the movement of the molecules.

To sense the difference, sniff a plate of cold roast beef versus hot roast beef straight from the oven. Or sniff two glasses of vodka, one warm, one icy from the freezer.

One comes up scent-free; the other has the olfactory allure of pure gasoline. Guess which is which. Or you can pass up the guessing and try for yourself. Nothing like firsthand experience!

  • Warming foods intensifies flavors. This development is sometimes beneficial (warm roast beef is somehow more savory than cold roast beef), sometimes not (warm milk is definitely not as popular as the icy-cold version).
  • Changing the temperature also changes texture. Heating softens some foods (butternut squash is a good example) and solidifies others (think eggs). Chilling keeps the fats in pâté firm so the stuff doesn’t melt down into a puddle on the plate. Ditto for the gelatin that keeps dessert molds and dinner aspics standing upright.

Adding nutrients

The addition of vitamins and minerals to basic foods has helped eliminate many once-common nutritional deficiency diseases. The practice is so common that you take the following for granted:

  • Breads, cereals, and grains are given extra B vitamins to replace the vitamins lost when whole grains are stripped of their nutrient-rich covering to make white flour or white rice or degermed cornmeal. Doing so reduces the risk of the B vitamin–deficiency diseases beriberi and pellagra.
  • Breads, cereals, and grains also are given iron to replace what’s lost in milling and to make it easier for American women to reach the RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) for this important mineral.
  • All milk sold in the U.S. has added vitamin D to reduce the risk of the bone-deforming vitamin D–deficiency diseases rickets (among children) and osteomalacia (among adults).
  • Added fat-free milk proteins turn skim milk — milk from which the fat has been removed — into a creamier liquid with more calcium but less fat and cholesterol than whole milk.

Combining benefits

Adding genes from one food (such as corn) to another food (such as tomatoes) may make the second food taste better and stay fresh longer.

Alternative Foods

In addition to its many other benefits, food processing offers you some totally fake but widely appreciated substitute fats and sweeteners. Actually, these may be just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. Two years ago, the Brits sprang Quorn, food made from fungi (yes, fungi) on an unsuspecting U.S. public.

Quorn seems to have slipped back into the nutritional netherworld, but as processing becomes more adventurous, who knows what strange and wonderful dishes lie just beyond the entrance to the Nutritional Twilight Zone? Dum-de-dum-dum . . .

Alternative foods No. 1: Fake fats

Fat carries desirable flavors and makes food “rich.” But it’s also high in calories, and some fats can clog your arteries. One way to deal with this problem is to eliminate the fat from food (as in skim milk). Another way is to head for the food lab and create a no- or low-calorie, nonclogging substitute, such as Olestra/Olean or Simplesse.


Olestra/Olean is a no-calorie compound made from sugar and vegetable oils. Olestra is indigestible, which means it adds no nutrients — such as fat or cholesterol — to food. Unfortunately, as it speeds through your intestinal tract, it’s likely to pick up and swoosh along some fat-soluble nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin D, and vitamin E.

In addition, eating excess amounts of food made with Olestra may cause diarrhea. In 1996, the FDA approved Olestra’s use in snack foods such as potato chips. At the time, the agency-required label stated that Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools.

In the spring of 1998, an 18-member FDA food advisory committee reaffirmed the agency’s original decision that Olestra is safe for use in snack foods. The committee concluded that the fat alternative’s gastrointestinal effects and its effects on your ability to absorb fatsoluble vitamins do not significantly affect public health.

In August 2003, the FDA, after a scientific review of several studies conducted after foods with Olestra went on sale, concluded that the statement was no longer required. But something’s an ill wind — and a really bad food ingredient — that doesn’t have at least some redeeming virtues.

In 2004, researchers at the University of Cincinnati and the University of Western Australia treated a patient with chloracne (a skin condition caused by exposure to the toxic chemical dioxin) with a regimen of — get this — potato chips made with Olestra.

The result? The patient’s skin cleared up and his body level of dioxin went down. A-maz-ing. For more information about the activities of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, which conducted the tests evaluating Olestra, visit the Web site at


Simplesse is a low-calorie fat substitute used in processed foods. It is made by heating and blending proteins from egg whites and/or milk into extremely tiny round balls that taste like fat. Simplesse has 1 to 2 calories per gram versus 9 calories per gram for real fats or oils.

Simplesse is not recommended for young children because they need essential fatty acids found in real fats, and its use may be problematic for people who are:

  • Sensitive to milk (the label on a food with Simplesse must carry the word “milk”)
  • Sensitive to eggs
  • On low-protein diets (for example, kidney disease patients)

Alternative foods No. 2: Substitute sweeteners

Here’s a scientific tidbit. Most substitute sweeteners were discovered by accident in laboratories where researchers touched a paper or a pencil, then stuck their fingers in their mouths to discover, “Eureka! It’s sweet.”

As Harold McGee wrote in the first edition of his wonderful On Food and Cooking (Collier Books, 1988), “These stories make one wonder about the standards of laboratory hygiene.”

Because substitute sweeteners are not absorbed by your body and don’t provide any nutrients, scientists call them by their proper name: non-nutritive sweeteners. The best-known (listed in order of their discovery and/or FDA approval) are:

  • Saccharin (Sweet’N Low): This synthetic sweetener was discovered by accident (the fingers-in-the-mouth syndrome) at Johns Hopkins in 1879.

A ban on saccharin was proposed in 1977, after it was linked to bladder cancer in rats; however, it’s still on the market, and diabetics who have used saccharin for years show no excess levels of bladder cancer.

That aside, a warning label nevertheless may appear with saccharin-sweetened products, indicating that it is a mild rodent carcinogen.

In December 1998, the executive committee of the National Toxicology Program (NTP) recommended that saccharin be taken off the list of suspected human carcinogens, but this step has not yet been taken.

Note: Most people think saccharin is very sweet, but if you hate broccoli, you’re likely to think saccharin’s bitter.

  • Cyclamates: These surfaced (on somebody’s finger, of course) in 1937 at the University of Illinois. They were tied to cancer in laboratory animals and banned (1969) in the U.S. but not in Canada and many other countries. Never has any evidence of ill effects in human beings been attributed to cyclamates, which are available for use as a tabletop sweetener in Canada. In the U.S., the FDA is currently reconsidering its ban.
  • Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet): Another accidental discovery (1965), aspartame is a combination of two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine. The problem with aspartame is that during digestion, it breaks down into its constituent ingredients.

The same thing happens when aspartame is exposed to heat. That’s trouble for people born with a phenylketonuria (PKU), a metabolic defect characterized by a lack of the enzyme needed to digest phenylalanine. The excess amino acid can pile up in brain and nerve tissue, leading to mental retardation in young children.

  • Sucralose (Splenda): Sucralose, which was discovered in 1976, is a nocalorie sweetener made from sugar. But your body doesn’t recognize it as a carbohydrate or a sugar, so it zips through your intestinal tract unchanged. More than 100 scientific studies conducted during a 20-year period attest to its safety, and the FDA has approved its use in a variety of foods, including baked goods, candies, substitute dairy products, and frozen desserts.
  • Acesulfame-K (Sunett): The K is the chemical symbol for potassium, and this artificial sweetener, with a chemical structure similar to saccharin, is found in baked goods, chewing gum, and other food products. In 1998, the FDA approved its use in soft drinks, whose shelf life it seems to prolong.
  • Neotame: This free-flowing, water-soluble sweetener is derived from amino acids. In 2002, the FDA approved Neotame for use as a tabletop sweetener (the stuff you put in your coffee), as well as use in jams and jellies, syrups, puddings and gels, fruits, fruit juices, and non-alcohol beverages. To date, more than 113 animal and human studies have shown absolutely no adverse effects.
  • Tagatose (Naturlose, Shugr): A white powder made from lactose, the sugar in milk. In 2003, FDA approved the use of tagatose in cereal, soft drinks, frozen desserts, candy, chewing gum, and cake frosting. Although tagatose may cause gastric upset (gas and diarrhea), it can also serve as an aid to digestion.

Table 1 compares the calorie content and sweetening power of sugar versus the substitute sweeteners. For comparison, sugar has 4 calories per gram.

Sweetener Calories Per Gram Sweetness Relative to Sugar*
Sugar (sucrose) 4
Saccharin 0 200–700 times sweeter than sugar
Cyclamates 0 30–60 times sweeter than sugar
Aspartame 4** 160–200 times sweeter than sugar
Sucralose 0 600 times sweeter than sugar
Acesulfame-K 0 150–200 times sweeter than sugar
Tagatose 1.5** Similar to sugar
Neotame 0 7,000–13,000 times sweeter than sugar

* The range of sweetness reflects estimates from several sources.
** Aspartame has 4 calories per gram and tagatose 1.5, but you need so little to get a sweet flavor that you can count the calorie content as 0

You can sum up the essence of food processing by following the trail of one chicken from the farm to your table. (Vegetarians are excused) A chicken’s first brush with processing comes right after slaughtering. It’s plucked and shipped off to the food processor or the supermarket, packed in ice to slow the natural bacterial decomposition.

In the food factory, your chicken may be boiled and canned whole, or boiled and cut up and canned in small portions like tuna fish, or boiled into chicken soup to be canned or dehydrated into bouillon cubes, or cooked with veggies and canned as chicken à la king, or fried and frozen in whole pieces, or roasted, sliced, and frozen into a chicken dinner, or . . . you get the picture.