Interested in Food Quality Training? Here’s a Brief History of Processed Food

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Processed food
has a wide-reaching definition. The USDA defines a food as processed if it has undergone any changes to its natural state. This can include foods that have been washed, cut, heated, pasteurized, cooked, canned, frozen, dehydrated, and more. 

Nearly all food is processed in some way. As humans, we have been processing food nearly since the inception of our species. As a professional in food quality control, it’s important to know what food processing means, its implications, and its history. Here’s a brief overview of the history of food processing. 

Early History of Processed Foods 

Humans have been processing food for hundreds of thousands of years. Our processing techniques are part of what enabled us to evolve and develop in such an advanced way. Since we began experimenting with food preparation, we have learned how to: 

  • cook
  • extract 
  • ferment
  • freeze
  • dry, and 
  • preserve our meals. 

The earliest example of food processing happened around 1.8 million years ago. After learning how to create fire, we began to roast meats to make them both easier to digest and more nutritious. Switching to fire-roasted meat was important for supporting our evolution into smart, hyper-conscious creatures. 

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Roasted meat is the earliest example of food being processed

Another significant progress in our use of food processing was the creation of bread. This is estimated to have happened as early as 30,000 years ago. Archaeologists have found evidence in Eastern Europe that the roots of cattails and ferns were pounded into flour, mixed with water, and baked. Bread is portable, dense with nutrients, and resistant to spoilage. This made it a valuable food for early societies. 

Processed Foods’ Recent History, for Those in Food Quality Training 

Other significant progressions in processed foods started to occur around the time of the mid-twentieth century. Students in food quality training may be interested to know that these developments included some of the following: 

  • The 1940s saw the creation of instant coffee, with Maxwell House first supplying their products to American army troops, then to general consumers after the end of the war 
  • Within this same period, the United States began to issue guidelines on adding nutrients like iron and B vitamins to grain products to accommodate for nutrient deficiencies
  • This decade also saw the invention of the microwave, initially created to reheat meals on airplanes 
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The mid-twentieth century saw the rise of highly-processed foods, like frozen dinners

After the war, economic expansion resulted in the widening of the processed food market. The 1950s saw the rise in popularity of refrigeration, and the boom in sales of other kitchen appliances. Frozen foods began to take off, and the supermarket began to stock these new processed foods. 

With the 1960s came the introduction of high-fructose corn syrup as a substitute for sugar. Soft drinks like Coca-Cola and Pepsi also began to produce “diet” versions of their beverages using non-sugar sweeteners, heralding in a new age of artificial colours, flavors, and additives. 

Distinguishing Between Processed Foods in the Modern Age

Clearly, the category of processed foods is flexible in what it refers to. However, there are ways for professionals with food quality control training to distinguish between processed foods in the modern age. 

The NOVA classification was introduced in 2009. It divides kinds of food processing into four categories and is today implemented in several countries to assist in understanding nutrition. Its categories are as follows:   

  • Unprocessed/minimally processed foods, which includes many fruits, vegetables, nuts, meats, milk, and whole grains 
  • Processed culinary ingredients, which includes oils derived from plants, seeds, and nuts, and flour or pasta formed from whole grains 
  • Processed foods, which contains some canned fruits and vegetables, cheeses, freshly made bread, and canned fish 
  • Ultra-processed/highly-processed foods, which includes frozen dinners, sugary drinks, cookies, chips, and breakfast cereals 
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There are different types of processed foods, some of which can have a lower nutritional value

Importantly for nutrition experts, these categories move from foods whose nutritional content isn’t substantially changed by processing, to foods low in fiber and nutrients. 

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