Potato chips. Cookies. Candy. A burger, fries, and soda from your favorite fast-food restaurant. Most people know these are processed foods. But even apples, the classic healthy snack that keeps doctors away, are processed.

“‘Fresh’ apples are actually picked several months to a year before they show up in the supermarket,” says Soo-Yeun Lee, director of the School of Food Science at Washington State University. “They’re washed, coated with an edible wax, and stored in a very specific condition before they’re distributed. That’s all processing. Without it, apples would shrivel up or rot within a few weeks.”

headshot of Soo-Yeun LeeSoo-Yeun Lee (Courtesy WSU News)

Under the NOVA food classification system, the more a product is processed, the less healthy it becomes. Since the classification’s development in 2009, many consumers have used it as a guideline to choose more nutritious foods at the grocery store. But the classification isn’t foolproof.

“The frontier of health and sustainability of food is getting into ultra-processing, ironically,” Pablo Monsivais, associate professor in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology, says. “Meat alternatives, for example, are highly ultra-processed.”

Girish Ganjyal, an associate professor and food processing specialist in the School of Food Science, and his team have been developing a product that uses apple juice by-products, called pomace, to create a light, crispy puff loaded with fiber, which many Americans lack.

“The by-product was being wasted before, and at the same time, we see that the consumer lacks the fiber that’s present in that by-product,” Ganjyal says. “Selling the by-product is a potential solution, but the consumer is not going to eat pomace. That’s where food processing comes in.”

headshot of Girish GanjyalGirish Ganjyal (Courtesy University Events)

Using extrusion, a high-pressure and heating process that changes the shape of raw ingredients, Ganjyal and his team created a tasty, nutritious, and affordable product while also preventing food waste. But NOVA considers any product made with an extrusion process ultra-processed, which could turn off health-conscious consumers.

“It’s not the processing. It’s the fact that we’re relying on a lot of refined ingredients to make these foods,” Monsivais says. “More than half of the calories that Americans eat are ultra-processed foods. If you improve those, you’re improving more than half the diet.”

Consumers tend to choose food products based on familiarity and taste, as well as cost and convenience, and finally, nutrition. So it’s critical to make a healthful and sustainable food product that people will actually buy, Lee says.

“If nutritious food doesn’t sell, that means consumers aren’t benefiting from them,” Lee says. “Our job as food scientists is to develop products that will feed the world, so we need to make products that consumers like and are produced in a sustainable way. But if we can’t process food, how are we going to feed 10 billion people?”