Food processing is a procedure in which food is prepared for consumption. People often use this term to refer specifically to making packaged foods, but technically anything which transforms raw ingredients into something else is a form of food processing, ranging from grilling vegetables in the back yard to making television dinners in a food manufacturing facility. The sector focused on processing food employs large numbers of people, many of whom are unskilled laborers.
There are several purposes to food processing. The most basic goal is to prepare food which is palatable. This can include processing ingredients which are not safe to eat raw, flavoring foods to make them more interesting, and making dishes which comply with cultural and religions norms surrounding food, in addition to addressing issues such as allergies. Processing food is also usually intended to make food which is nutritious, and can include activities such as food fortification, in which vitamins and minerals are added to food during processing to increase the nutritional value.
Safety is also a major concern in food processing, especially industrial processing to create packaged foods which are sold commercially. These facilities can be easily contaminated and the contamination can quickly spread, causing widespread illness. Part of making food safe includes processing it to remove any potential risks, such as bacteria in milk, in addition to maintaining strict safety procedures to reduce the risk of introducing harmful organisms during processing.
In industrial food processing, these needs must be balanced with the need for preservation. Food which will be eaten in a few days needs to be stabilized so that it will retain texture and flavor in addition to staying safe. Other foods intended to be kept in dry storage for months or years must be specially processed so that they will not go bad. Some of the earliest forms of processing such as pickling and preserving foods echo the need to preserve foods effectively and safely which has challenged human cultures for thousands of years.
Many innovative techniques have been developed for food processing around the world to bring food to market while keeping it safe and flavorful. Certain processes are protected by patent and used only by people licensed to use the patent, such as the process behind Pringles® potato products, while others are widely used by everyone from home bakers to companies which produce diet meals on order for hospitals and institutions.