“We discourage children from eating processed foods. In fact, we don’t allow children to bring any processed foods as snacks. No bread, no pizza, no birthday cake. Only home-made Indian foods are allowed, like idlis, roti, etc.” Announced a primary school principal recently. This got me thinking: what is considered “processed” food? If I buy dosa batter instead of making it home, does it make dosa “processed food”? Does making bread at home shift it from processed food category to home food? Is processing a question of who does it and where (home vs. “production unit” or factory) or what ingredients are added to a food? And is all processing bad?
The question of food and food processing in India is something I have been interested in over the last several years. One topic which I have been particularly curious about is how much processed or unprocessed food do Indians actually eat? We like to believe that we eat very little processed food, but is this backed by data? Have changing food habits shifted the norms significantly?
Last week, I came across academic papers which analysed household food expenditure data to show that only 10% of food consumed in urban India is highly processed (with added ingredients), while the majority 73% is minimally processed, and 17% is unprocessed. For rural India, the comparable figures are: 6%, 79% and 15% (see chart below). These figures are in terms of money spent, not quantity.
Note one slightly tricky point about fluid milk: Fluid milk is treated as unprocessed in rural areas because it is an unpasteurized raw product, but as food with high-value first processing in urban areas.
The first question that arises from the above chart is why are rural Indians eating slightly less unprocessed food (excluding milk) than urban ones? This could be because the data is based on expenditure, not quantity of food consumed. Since prices of unprocessed foods are lower in rural areas where they are grown, it could account for the difference. Another contributor could be that many high-value produce such as fruits and vegetables and milk are intended for urban markets. Poor households (which constitute ~40% of the producers of the food we eat) often have dire need for cash, and therefore, sell almost all the produce, keeping very little for own consumption. Or this could simply be the margin of error in the data. The authors didn’t comment on this point.
The second interesting thing to note is that almost 6% of food expenditure in rural households goes towards highly processed foods. Though this is a significant amount, it is still quite small.
Trend over time
The authors compare expenditures with similar data from 1999-2000 and report some to-be-expected trends. Both urban and rural people are spending more on foods with high-value first processing and second processing. The interesting data is again in unprocesssed foods: Why are rural households spending slightly more than they used to on unprocessed foods? Could it be because rural Indias are increasing intake of higher value items such as vegetables? (see “What’s on the Indian Thali?“)
Food expenditure trend by level of processing
The study goes on to show (not surprisingly) a correlation between income and higher expenditure on processed foods. It also shows that states with greater urbanization also show higher expenditure on processed foods.
Those interested in digging deeper, can check out the two papers in endnotes.
Morisset, M., and P. Kumar. (2008). “Structure and Performance of the Food Processing Industry in India.” Available at http://www.isid.ac.in/~pu/conference/dec_11_conf/Papers/MichelMorisset.doc
Reardon, T., & Minten, B. (2011). The quiet revolution in India’s food supply chains (Vol. 1115). IFPRI Discussion Paper. Available at: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.226.6316&rep=rep1&type=pdf