Organic Articles: Processed Better than Fresh!

The Organic Consultancy

Processed Better than Fresh!

Simon Wright
The Organic Consultancy

This article originally appeared in the January 2003 edition of Organic Business.

The FSA Organic Research Workshop referred to elsewhere in this edition brought together a strong selection of speakers from whom I learnt a lot. I shared the platform with Professor Sue Southon from the Institute of Food Research who had some revelatory things to say about food processing and nutrition.

I am used to getting a pretty sniffy reaction from some people in the organic sector when I say I work mainly with processed organic food. Certainly there is a widely held belief that processed food will always have a lower nutritional value than will fresh food, this holding for both organic and non-organic products. Sue turned this assumption on its head by talking about bioavailability. Bioavailablity reflects the fact that a particular food may contain a nutrient, but in cases of low bioavailability the nutrient may not be fully available to the body. Reasons for low bioavailability are many but the example Sue gave was tomatoes. Tomatoes are of great interest to researchers looking at the nutritional benefits of the Mediterranean diet. One of the health-giving features of this diet is the preponderance of brightly coloured vegetables, principally tomatoes. The red colour in tomatoes is caused by the presence of the pigment lycopene. Lycopene is also the component now thought to be responsible for delivering health benefits such as reduced risk of coronary heart disease.

Researchers looked at how much lycopene was absorbed from fresh tomatoes as opposed to from tomato puree. To their surprise they found that more lycopene was absorbed from the processed tomato puree than from the fresh tomatoes. In other words the bioavailability of the processed tomato was higher than that of the fresh tomatoes. The explanation is that lycopene is held inside the cells of the tomatoes. Before the body can absorb the lycopene the cell walls must be disrupted. Pureeing tomatoes causes more cell wall disruption than does chewing a fresh tomato. More cell wall disruption means more lycopene release, greater lycopene absorbtion and potentially greater health benefits.

Around this time of year I think fresh tomatoes (even organic ones) lack flavour so organic tomato puree features strongly in my cooking. It is reassuring to know that in some ways I am enhancing my diet through choosing processed over fresh. It would be unwise to extrapolate this too far. “Pot Noodles Better For You Than Broccoli” is something we will not be reading in the immediate future…