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Food has been processed since communities first came together thousands of years ago. Most foods need some form of preparation and processing to make them more attractive to eat. Grains, vegetables, meats and fish are each unpalatable in their raw state, and some foods, such as cassava, are dangerous if eaten without processing. Even nuts, milk and fruits that are eaten raw can benefit from processing into a wide variety of other products.

Different types of processing have been developed over generations into the range of methods that we have today. In every region, country and even in individual villages, there are distinctive traditional processed foods that are well suited to the local climatic and socio-economic conditions (for example, the 2 000 different cheeses throughout the world, each with its own distinctive flavour and texture). In villages throughout the world, families inherit or develop specialist skills and become for example the village baker, brewer or fish smoker. Traditional products have a high local demand and are often sought by people in other areas, so establishing trade and the development of local food businesses. In Sri Lanka, for example, some communities are known throughout the island for the quality of their buffalo curd (yoghurt), which is bought by traders and distributed over wide areas. Food preparation and processing therefore benefit communities by:

However, processing does more than change the eating quality of raw foods. All foods are biological materials that begin to decay as soon as they are harvested or slaughtered. Processing slows down or stops this deterioration and thus allows foods to be preserved for extended periods. This benefits village communities in a number of ways.

Processing offers opportunities for villagers to diversify their sources of income. When farmers in an area grow similar crops, processing helps to avoid the effects of lowered prices and incomes when seasonal gluts occur at harvest time. Processing also enables farmers who grow low-value staple crops to add value and increase household incomes. For example, in many African countries processing sorghum into beer or processing cassava into gari or snack foods can form very successful small-scale businesses. In many Asian countries, value is similarly added to fruits and vegetables by processing them into a wide range of pickles, chutneys and other relishes. These small-scale operations are a major source of employment in rural villages, estimated at up to 60 percent of employment in some countries.
Many governments and international development agencies promote food processing as a means of alleviating poverty in rural areas. There are many advantages in choosing food processing over other income-generating activities.

There are two broad categories of food preparation and processing:

1. Primary processing, in which foods are stabilized after harvest and sometimes converted into a more convenient form for storage. Examples include drying crops, milling cereals and extracting cooking oils from oilseeds or nuts. These types of processing are described in more detail in the accompanying booklet in this series High hopes for post-harvest.

2. Secondary processing, in which fresh foods or the products of primary processing are made into a wide range of processed foods. These are the subject of this booklet.

In the following sections, the booklet describes some of the opportunities and constraints that face communities in developing countries who wish to introduce or improve food processing. It is intended to assist:

Food preparation and processing are important to rural communities to ensure their food security, to increase variety in people's diets, and as a means of generating diversified income and employment. When successful, processing at village level can create an enhanced quality of life for villagers because of greater prosperity and improved health and nutrition.

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