Can High Pressure Processing (HPP) Resolve America’s Strange Relationship With Vitamins?

On the face of it, getting an optimal dose of your daily vitamins this day and age seems straightforward.

Like millions of Americans, I have a small bottle of ‘daily vitamins’ sitting in my kitchen, glaring at me every time I open the cupboard, daring me not to take one.

You want to be healthy, don’t you?

You know that inadequate B12 and folic acid can make you feel tired and run down, don’t you? You know that too little B7 can affect your hair and skin, don’t you? You know that a deficiency in numerous other vitamins is linked to anemia. . . don’t you?

It all sounds so dire, and the solution so simple.

Just take this little pill. Boom. All the health you could possibly want. It’s easy.

Is it, though?

Is it really as easy as taking a pill to get the full benefit of the vitamins and minerals you need?

The evidence suggests it’s not.

The Synergy of Whole Foods

If you asked the average person 30 years ago about antioxidants, you’re likely to have been met with a blank look. They may well have insisted antioxidants couldn’t be good. Anti-oxygen? That doesn’t sound right.

The public didn’t know much about antioxidants then.

Nonetheless, they were there, performing important roles in our bodies. We didn’t need to know about them to reap the benefits.

Research suggests there are other elements in our whole foods right now aiding in the absorption and usefulness of our vitamins (among other practical functions). . . and we’re not sure what they are.

An article about blueberries (of all things!) published this last November (2017) in The Atlantic speaking with researcher Barbara Shukitt-Hale Ph.D. puts the situation simply: “At some point between blueberry and multivitamin, apparently, people start losing benefits.”

Shukitt-Hale says, “There’s something about the food matrix in the whole blueberry that I can’t really explain, but it seems like all of it is important. Some compounds in foods that seemed extraneous actually help carry other compounds other places, and once you start isolating them, the sum of the parts is just less than the whole.”

She’s not alone.

Experts in the health industry have been trying to tell us this for years.

A cursory search for a word of scientific wisdom in the discussion of food versus supplements effortlessly produces advice from the likes of Harvard, Consumer Lab, and the Mayo Clinic heavily supporting foods over supplements.

The support for supplements? Noticeably lacking.

Where supplements, are recommended, it’s only after dietary changes have been made and found to be insufficient.

Besides the sometimes disappointing results derived from isolated elements, too many vitamins – an occurrence found almost exclusively in cases of supplementation – have real and sometimes severe consequences.

Excessive intake of vitamins B12 and B6 can actually increase a person’s risk of cancer – sometimes quadrupling a person’s likelihood of developing lung cancer, specifically.

The studies linking too much vitamin A to liver problems like cirrhosis are too numerous to list.

Why then, with the evidence as it stands, are so many Americans reaching for the pill bottle rather than fruits, vegetables, and other nutrient-packed foods?

An Epidemic of Lost Time

Despite what you might hear, Americans are among the hardest workers on the planet.

Even Japan ranks behind the U.S. in terms of hours worked annually.

This is especially pronounced in the Millennial generation, who routinely forfeit vacation days and sick leave in favor of being perceived as so-called “work martyrs.”

That leaves fast food and highly processed snack foods replacing the produce we should be preparing and eating on a daily basis.

Add to that the general preference for salty, sugary, fatty processed foods, and the levels of vitamin deficiency in a first world nation with plenty of access to food becomes shocking.

The Rise of RTEs, Juicing, and Functional Foods

Two years ago, I was visiting my dad when he pulled out a pre-packaged meal kit come dinner time.

It had all the ingredients needed to make a full meal, complete with main course and side dishes – you just had to cook it.

What on Earth is this? I asked him.

“You tell them what meals you want to make,” he explained. “And they send you the exact amount you need to make it.” I had never heard of such a thing.

Today, they’re everywhere.

According to Inc., there are over 150 meal kit companies operating in the U.S.

And that’s to say nothing of juice sales.

Despite a modest flag in some sectors of the industry, Americans continue to spend billions of dollars on high-nutrient juices every year, with some areas growing rapidly – particularly the non-GMO and so-called “super-premium” products.

Americans want to be healthy.

The catch is finding solutions that fit our crunch for time without compromising the health benefits associated with eating whole foods.

The Downsides of Heat Treatment

While making home cooked meals with ingredients straight from the store is one thing, juicing and meal kits come with a challenge – you have to store it.

And storage comes with risks.

Traditionally, the solution has been heat. Heat up the foods now, kill off the bacteria, and keep your food safe for later consumption.

The downside?

Heat destroys vitamins.

Every so often, the USDA re-evaluates and release its Table of Nutrient Retention Factors. The most recent was in 2007.

While it’s not the most exciting thing to look at, it does make one thing clear – foods suffer significant losses to vitamin content when subjected to heat.

How much is lost depends heavily on:

  • The vitamin in question
  • The type of food
  • The cooking method
  • The temperature
  • How long the food is held at temperature

The exact vitamin loss may vary, but the fact that vitamin retention declines after being introduced to high temperatures is just about universal across the board.

This creates a problem for a society looking for healthier options in a world that is moving too fast.

High Pressure Processing (HPP) Preserves Vitamin Content

Dreamed up in the late 1800s, High Pressure Processing has just started coming into its own in recent years as new technology has made large scale production feasible.

The system works pretty much as described.

Food producers use extreme pressure to render food safe and ready for public consumption. Under pressures as high as 87,000 pounds per square inch (read: the equivalent of being 37 miles under the ocean), the vast majority of illness-causing bacteria are crushed, rendering them inactive and the food safe to eat.

This system works equally well for fresh foods, such as fruits and vegetables, as it does for ones that have undergone some kind of preparation beforehand, such as hummus, guacamole, juice, and meal kits.

The pre-made guacamole industry can fairly be said to owe its success in the last decade to this very process.

HPP not only renders the food safe to eat, but preserves the fresh green color that would have otherwise browned under heat treatment.

And of course, the vitamins remain intact, too.

There are Other Benefits to High Pressures Over Heat

We don’t notice it often because heat pasteurization is so ubiquitous, but when you raise the temperature of your foods, the taste changes. Both texture and flavor profile – two key factors in how you experience food – will be altered significantly as the temperature rises and is maintained. Not so in High Pressure Processing.

HPPed products also boast a longer shelf-life than traditionally prepared commercial foods. Where juices in particular once lasted an estimated 20 days on the shelf, the life of those same products can now be extended for several months.

This has positive implications for stores, food companies, and consumers alike.

For stores, the benefit is obvious: reduced product turnover.

A longer shelf-life means the food is less likely to spoil before someone buys it. The cost reduction in this area alone can have a considerable impact on ROI.

For food companies, it means their products can be shipped further and reach a wider customer-base than is possible under different preparation methods (and indeed was leveraged in the guacamole example).

Finally, consumers know all to well the realities of purchasing healthier foods only to have them turn before you finally get around to making that salad (and yes – HPP can be used for that, too).

For anyone who’s like me – frustrated by easily-spoiled vegetables thwarting your dieting efforts at every turn – this is a game changer. (Could this be the final step to kicking that bottle of pills to the curb once and for all?)

And last, but far from least, all of this is done without the need for questionable preservatives and added chemicals.

Maybe It Wasn’t Just a Fad…

Nobody likes that over-zealous juicer a little too eager to impress you with just how healthy their new favorite trend is – but were they onto something?

At the end of the day, your health is everything.

While there may be problems with too many vitamins, you’d be hard pressed to argue that you don’t need them.

From memory problems to low energy, the truth is that a vitamin deficiency can and will disrupt your quality of life. And people today are realizing more and more that this ‘quality of life’ business is something they care about.

You matter. Your health matters. How you feel when you wake up in the morning matters.

If there’s a way to get the right supply of nutrients in healthy amounts delivered via real, natural foods, I’m in.


Ashli Thorpe | February 2, 2018